Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Blunt Amendment

As Submitted To The Congressional Record

The Senate is considering a bipartisan bill that would reauthorize critical infrastructure investments and that will protect an estimated 1.8 million jobs if enacted before the end of this month. Unfortunately, in order to move forward on this important legislation, my friends on the other side of the aisle have demanded that we first consider an amendment entirely unrelated to transportation or even job creation.  We have now spent the past two days considering a Republican amendment that would roll back access to health care for millions of Americans.

Access to health care for women has come under attack in recent weeks after the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would follow the recommendations of the non-partisan Institute of Medicine and require that under the Affordable Care Act, health plans must cover a range of preventative services for women, including contraception.  This is not a novel solution.  Twenty-eight states, including Vermont, already require such coverage. The new rule will also include no-cost preventative coverage of a range of services for women including mammograms, pre-natal screenings, cervical cancer screenings, flu shots and much more. 

Some religious institutions were apprehensive about the policy and in response, the Obama Administration made further accommodations to address these concerns.  The new policy strikes a reasonable balance and is a solution that continues to recognize the obvious truth that women have a right to affordable and comprehensive health care, just as men do.  One thing we all should agree on is that availability of birth control has improved women’s health and reduced the number of teen pregnancies and the rates of abortion.  This should be applauded.

Unfortunately, this compromise did not satisfy some who insist on politicizing women’s health.  At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing a few weeks ago, a thoughtful Georgetown law student was prevented from testifying about her experiences because she was deemed not "appropriate and qualified" to testify at the hearing by its Republican Chairman. Not surprisingly, the all-male panel failed to raise any first-hand concern about women’s health care needs.    Rather than demonizing women who speak out on behalf of the millions who use contraception we should be having a principled debate about access to health care.  Last year, Congress nearly shut down the government over funding for Planned Parenthood and other Title X providers.  States have recently followed suit by passing laws limiting women’s access to health care services. Our focus should be on improving access to quality and affordable health care for all Americans, not arbitrarily restricting important services needed by millions of women.     

The Republican amendment marks just the latest overreach and intrusion in to women’s health care.  While this debate began as one focused on access to birth control, the amendment has a far greater reach and jeopardizes virtually any health care service that an employer or insurance plan deems contrary to its undefined “moral conviction”—whether the employer is a religious institution or not.  For example, any plan or insurer could deny coverage of vaccinations or HIV/AIDS treatment based on a moral or religious objection. The pending amendment would allow any employer or insurer to refuse contraceptive coverage, annual well-women visits, gestational diabetes screening and domestic violence screenings. This amendment could allow an insurance provider to refuse coverage of health care services to an interracial couple, or single mom because of a religious or moral objection. 

At the core of the Affordable Care Act was the principle that all Americans, regardless of health history or gender, have the right to access health care services. This amendment turns that belief around and would take decisions out of the hands of patients and doctors and place them with businesses and insurance plans.  This serves only to put businesses and insurance companies in the driver’s seat, allowing them to capriciously deny women coverage of health care services. The amendment is a direct attack on women’s health that would have public health consequences for all Americans.   

Today marks the first day of Women’s History Month.  Instead of considering legislation that might promote women’s equality such as the Paycheck Fairness Act or the Fair Pay Act, we are being forced to vote on the amendment that undermines the ability of women to access basic health care.  I will vote today in favor of the health of women and against the proposed amendment.  I urge my fellow senators to do the same.

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