Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jeanne Devon (AKMuckraker) Headshot

Senator Lisa Murkowski Was for Contraception Coverage Before She Was Against It

Posted: Updated:

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was one of three women in the Senate, along with Susan Collins (R - ME) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to vote this week for the Blunt Amendment, which would preclude insurance coverage for contraceptives and other medical procedures for which an employer had a moral objection. But when Murkowski was a state legislator in Alaska, she was a prime sponsor of a bill that would have done just the opposite, and required non-religious employers to cover the cost of contraception through the proposed House Bill No. 313. "An Act requiring that the cost of contraceptives be included in certain health care insurance coverage," also known as the Prescriptive Equity Act of 2002.

Then State Rep. Murkowski presented the bill as a prime sponsor on April 30, 2002 in Room 418 of the Capitol building in Juneau.

Murkowski's Sponsor Statement, which appears on her old legislative website reads:

In order to bring Alaska into compliance under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we have introduced House Bill 313, also referred to as "Prescription Equity". Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that an employer's failure to cover prescription contraceptives in employee health benefit plans constitutes unlawful sex discrimination.

While HB 313 calls for contraceptive coverage, it only requires it in a plan already offering prescription drugs and does not require an insurer provide coverage for abortion. In the scope of this bill, a religious employer would be exempt from offering coverage for contraceptives if it is against their doctrine.

Coverage of prescriptive contraceptives can be a point of contention for some. However it is important to realize contraceptive coverage is healthier for the women, the family and society than an unintended pregnancy. In 1996, 42 percent of the live births in Alaska were from unintended pregnancies. Additionally, many doctors will prescribe contraceptives to a woman not for sexual reasons, but for the overall health of the women from regulating menstrual cycles to alleviating dermatology problems and other hormonal imbalances.

The more effective forms of contraception are generally the most expensive. Women and their families who must pay out of pocket may opt for less expensive and sometimes less effective methods, increasing the risk for unintended pregnancies. Women of reproductive age currently spend 68 percent more in out-of-pocket health care costs than men. Much of the gender gap in expenses is due to reproductive health-related supplies and services.

Cost analyses show if health insurance policies were to include coverage for these contraceptive supplies, cost to employers would be minimal - as little as $1.43 per employee per month. In 1998, coverage inequality was brought into the spotlight as Viagra hit the market. Within two months of entering the U.S. market, more than half of all Viagra prescriptions received some insurance reimbursement, while overall coverage for oral contraceptives did not reach this level until they had been on the market for over 40 years.

To date 17 states offer comprehensive coverage for prescription contraceptives, while an additional 15 states offer partial mandates or optional coverage. The sponsors and co-sponsors of HB 313 strongly urge your support of this legislation.

In case you're going to try to parse this by saying that it was only done to bring Alaska into federal compliance, I'll point out to you that Lisa Murkowski didn't have to sign on, nor did she have to be a sponsor, never mind a prime sponsor of the bill. We can assume that she was actually telling the truth, and believed all of the wonderful reasons she gave, that inspired her to push this bill forward. It's healthier for women, families, and society, she said. And then there's the rate of unintended pregnancy in Alaska, which, incidentally, has gone up since then. And she rightly raises the point that often, oral contraceptives are prescribed to women for reasons having nothing to do with birth control. She even brought up the Viagra argument. Well played, actually.

And yet, yesterday, Senator Murkowski voted against every one of her own eloquent arguments, and instead voted supposedly to "protect rights of conscience," by allowing insurance to deny coverage -- not only for contraception, but for any procedure found morally objectionable by the employer.

Murkowski won her Senate seat in one of the most exciting races in the 2010 election cycle. Known as a fairly moderate Republican, she was ousted in the primary by a strong Tea Party turnout for challenger Joe Miller from Fairbanks. Murkowski decided to mount a write-in campaign opposing Miller, and Democratic nominee Scott McAdams of Sitka. Against all odds, she was successfully able to win the race as a write-in, despite having a challenging last name, and no support from the national Republican leadership.

This astounding victory was due in large part to her promise to Alaskans to be a moderate voice, and that her win would mean that she would no longer be shackled by party politics. Democrats, Independents, and moderate Republicans voted in droves, and won her the seat again. They voted in good faith, believing the campaign spin. It would be Murkowski's second re-election, in her own right, after having been given the seat amid much controversy, by her father Frank Murkowski who left his seat in the Senate for the Alaska governor's mansion. Alaskans like long-term politicians with seniority who can give a big voice to a sparsely populated state, and a second election would assure Murkowski a solid hold on the seat, allowing her to vote as she chose without fear of losing it. Or so the story went.

It's now evident (with her latest vote on the Blunt amendment making it crystal clear) that Murkowski is, in fact, willing to cast her own moderate beliefs and opinions aside to appease the leadership, and vote in lock-step with the rank and file Republicans, no matter how far they go. So much for the strong, independent voice Alaskans were promised. So much for a woman of conviction who wasn't afraid to buck the party to make the right vote. Even on fundamental issues of women's health that she once championed, she will vote with the party instead of her own conscience.