Playing politics with the pill could backfire on GOP

Herald-Leader editorial writer Jamie Lucke
Herald-Leader editorial writer Jamie Lucke

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's vow to prolong the flap over insurance coverage of contraceptives raises a couple of questions:

■ How many people will buy McConnell's warped notion of religious freedom?

■ How many will buy President Barack Obama's warped notion that insurance companies give anyone anything for "free?"

Listening to McConnell, you get the impression that religious freedom is the freedom of believers to impose their values on other people.

That's not religious freedom, that's Sharia law. People in this country are free to follow the dictates of their own consciences, until their consciences run them aground on civil laws. Nothing is more basic to our founding tradition or Constitution than that definition of religious freedom.

Suppose the bishops had decreed that employees of Catholic hospitals, universities and schools who use prescription contraceptives would be paid less than employees who don't use contraceptives? Obvious discrimination, right?

But, as ridiculous as docking the pay of employees who are on the pill would be, that's basically what the bishops are insisting upon, with the enthusiastic backing of McConnell and the GOP presidential field.

The law of the land for more than 30 years has been that employers who provide prescription drug coverage must include prescription contraceptives. Because only women use prescription contraceptives, denying this coverage is gender discrimination.

It's important to note nothing is forcing Catholic doctors or hospitals to prescribe or provide birth control. And employers whose primary purpose is religious, such as a church or mission, were already exempt for the same reason Amish drivers don't have to put bright orange triangles on their buggies. Oh, wait, the Amish go to jail if they don't put the triangles on their buggies.

The only thing that's new, as a result of the 2010 health care law, is that insurance plans will no longer be able to charge co-pays or deductibles for contraceptives, which the Obama administration has classified as a preventive service.

So why the ruckus?

That's easy. Accusing Obama of attacking religion fits the strategy of portraying him as an exotic threat to all things red, white and blue who probably isn't even a citizen and who wants to control your meds and take away your freedom.

What's harder to understand is why Republicans think aligning themselves with the enemies of contraception is a winning political move.

Ninety-nine percent of women in this country who have had sex have used contraception. More than 10 million are on the pill at any one time. And it's millions of American men with whom they're having all that sex.

Republicans might fire up the fringes by prolonging this controversy, but it's a bizarre way to appeal to a broad base of voters. What will the bumper stickers say? "GOP 2012: Leading you to the Dark Ages?"

The Catholic Health Association, the nation's largest group of non-profit health care providers, applauded the compromise that Obama quickly announced after the bishops and Republicans protested. Not surprising. Catholic hospitals have to compete for employees, and one of the best ways to do that is by offering good health benefits. Also, universities that discriminate against their women employees by denying contraceptive coverage tend to get sued and lose.

But the compromise seems like a distinction without a difference: Employers who have moral objections would not have to pay the cost of contraceptives but the insurance companies will have to instead.

What insurance companies do is redistribute the premiums paid to them by their customers. Employers don't "give" their workers health care benefits, either. Workers exchange their labor for these benefits, which are often more valuable than a salary.

The weakness of a system that relies on employers to provide health care is showcased by this controversy.

"Women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraception, no matter where they work," Obama said in announcing the compromise. He promised "contraceptive care free, without co-pays and without hassles."

There's a good chance this requirement will not raise health care costs because contraception is cheaper than paying for a pregnancy and birth. A main goal of the health care reform is to contain spiraling medical costs, which imperil the entire economy. We can only hope any savings will be passed on to consumers.

Rest assured any costs will be. Nothing is free