Contraception bill ignites sharp debate over religion, insurance — and 2 men discussing women’s health

Updated Jun 20, 2019

On what was likely its last voting session until November, the state Assembly on Thursday was plowing through more than 100 bills without so much as a break.

Then it hit a buzzsaw of a debate over the cost of contraceptives. The tense debate at the Statehouse in Trenton went back and forth over reproductive rights and religious freedom. And it grew even more heated when a female lawmaker observed that she found it odd that two male lawmakers were debating women’s health.

It all stemmed from a bill, (A5508) that would require private insurers and the benefits plans for state employees and teachers to cover the cost of contraceptives. It’s a benefit already enshrined in the Affordable Care Act, but the landmark federal health care law is facing a court challenge, and the steady attacks by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights, asked Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Middlesex, the bill’s sponsor, whether his constituents told them they had trouble getting birth control. Webber also wanted to know if Zwicker could identify which employers the law would affect.

Zwicker said no one specifically asked for help, and he declined to identify the employers potentially affected.

“I want to make sure the women of New Jersey have access to contraceptives,” Zwicker replied. “What are you trying to get at?“

Webber said his point was the bill was “completely unnecessary.”

“You can’t name a single person it would help or a single employer it would effect though it attacks fundamental rights of the citizens of this state guaranteed to them by the constitution,” Webber said.

Forcing employers who object to paying for birth control would hurt people who work for religious organization who clothe and feed the poor or teach in a parochial school, he said. “They do it because they are motivated by their religious beliefs. Religion is not something they do on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.”

Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, D-Essex, took the floor to point out the oddity of two men debating a women’s health matter. “This is something that is extremely important. ... They have the right to decide for themselves.”

Timberlake’s remark apparently irked Webber. A lawmaker’s “genitalia” should not determine which issues they care about, he said. “I think the state is well-past this.”

Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, asked to be heard.

“In today’s world, this is not about women versus men, this is about insurance companies providing access to health care. This is about women being able to provide for their families and decide when they want to start a family," Murphy said.

The bill passed the Assembly by a 48-25 vote, with three abstentions. If ultimately signed into law, New Jersey would join Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Washington where free contraceptives laws is in effect.

The contraception legislation, is part of a package of bills intended to shore up the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

This year, 224,000 New Jerseyans bought health insurance coverage through the healthcare marketplace, healthcare.gov, and another 92,000 people bought individual policies separate from the exchange, according to the Department of Banking and Insurance. Another 519,000 people are insured through the expanded Medicaid program created under the ACA, according to the Department of Human Services.

The Assembly also passed (A5499) which permits New Jersey to create and operate its own health exchange. The vote was 52-25 and one abstention.

“Preserving affordability and access for residents under the Affordable Care Act requires New Jersey to take action," according to a statement from the Assembly sponsors Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), John McKeon (D-Essex), and Nancy Pinkin (D-Middlesex). “We can protect New Jersey families from any erroneous changes the Trump administration continues to make to the federal program.”

By a vote of 53-25, the Assembly also passed (A5506), which prohibits insurance carriers from offering “basic and essential” plans that they do not contain the 10 benefits required under the ACA. These benefits include maternity care, substance abuse and mental health treatment and prescription drugs.

The state Department of Banking and Insurance would create a rate review process for carriers who sell policies through the individual and small employers markets under (A5500), which also passed 58-20.

The legislation must still pass the state Senate and signed by the governor in order to become law.

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