Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday said the Republican health bill before the chamber would eliminate state health care guarantees, thereby jeopardizing women’s access to contraception and perhaps resulting in more abortions.

“If Bush Republicans have their way, millions of women will have to make a choice between going without effective prescription contraception and struggling to pay for it out-of-pocket, something many will be unable to do,” said Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat.

Linking the bill to the abortion issue, a key part of the Republican platform, Mrs. Clinton, New York Democrat, said that “in order to decrease the number of unintended pregnancies and to decrease the number of abortions, we must make contraception more accessible and more affordable.” The bill, she and Mr. Reid argued, would do the opposite.

At issue is a Republican bill that would allow small businesses to band together across state lines to purchase health insurance. These larger pools of regional or national associations would give them leverage to negotiate with insurance companies for better rates, supporters say.

But the bill would waive state coverage requirements for these health care plans. Bill supporters say requirements vary so much from state to state that the cost and complexity discourage many businesses from banding together.

Democrats said that change paves the way for coverage to be harmfully scaled-back in key areas, such as contraception, which is required coverage in about 25 states.

Nothing could be further from the truth, said bill sponsor Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican. He called Mr. Reid’s and Mrs. Clinton’s accusations “fear-mongering in its most transparent form.”

Mr. Enzi said access to contraceptives is protected under federal rulings, which his bill wouldn’t touch.

Progress on the bill has been slow. An aide to Mr. Enzi says the plan is to bring up a cloture motion today, which would end debate and force a final vote on the bill soon after. But a Democratic leadership aide said Democrats will vote against cloture.

Democrats have been angered by Republicans’ refusal to let them offer amendments on other health issues, such as stem-cell research and the Medicare prescription-drug program. And they say the bill is a dangerous venture.

“Embedded in the Enzi approach is the abandonment of state insurance regulation,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Republicans said it simply comes down to who should have the power. A memo from Mr. Enzi’s office says the bill “puts our trust in the intelligence and decency of America’s small employers and family-owned businesses, rather than in the mercy of insurance companies or the wisdom of government.”

The White House wants the Senate to pass the bill, though it’s also pushing to allow trade and professional associations to self-insure, as larger companies and labor union health plans do.

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