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2 push access to birth control

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Two different bills from two different senators from two different parties. But both proposals have the same objective: make birth control as accessible as other prescription drugs.

While the measures unveiled Monday are similar and their authors tend to use the same words ("parity" and "equity") to describe the inherent benefits of their bills, the sponsors take different tacks to achieve the same goal.

SB54 would mandate insurance providers to cover contraceptives while SB112 would require insurance companies to include them in their menu of prescriptions.

SB54 is a women's health issue, said sponsor Sen. Paula Julander, D-Salt Lake, who is making her fourth consecutive attempt to pass a prescription birth control equity bill.

"It's time for Utah to outlaw this indefensible discrimination," Julander said.

SB112 would require health insurance policies to treat contraceptives the same as any FDA-approved prescription drug, said Sen. Steven Poulton, R-Holladay.

"To mandate it as a benefit would run up policy premiums and knock people off the insurance rolls," Poulton said. "The better way is to ensure it's there so providers can offer it like any other prescription benefit."

Julander said insurance companies can already offer contraceptive coverage anyway if they want, although most don't. SB112 would only affirms the status quo, she said.

She maintains that the notion of equity in coverage without the mandate is empty and allows engrained gender bias in health-care coverage to continue. "In many insurance plans the only prescriptions not covered are contraceptives."

The result is that women of childbearing age pay 68 percent more in out-of-pocket health-care costs than males the same age, she said. And while insurers rushed to cover Viagra with nearly 100 percent of them signed up within two months of its release, the same companies have continued to exclude contraceptive coverage, she said.

Poulton, who is an insurance broker said the rush to cover Viagra is likely the result of an old rule of thumb in the insurance industry at work: a benefit that could possibly be used by half or more of a population (birth control) is simply a lot less financially attractive than one that less than half are likely to use (Viagra.)

About 4 percent to 6 percent of women in Utah would probably use the contraceptive benefit because some self-insurers and religious groups opposed to birth control would be exempted in both bills.

"But in any case, politically we need to get this behind us, and it is the right thing to do," Poulton said. "This gets us to equity with other prescriptions."

Julander said she can't understand why more employers wouldn't want to provide the benefit because the more control women have in this issue, the less absenteeism companies would have to deal with. "And in a state where 52 percent of the work force is female, that would be a significant factor," Julander said.

Access to birth control means women have access to healthier lives. If births are spaced, both the baby and the mother are healthier, they have fewer complications and their overall health is better.

Although Julander has sponsored similar legislation three times before — coming one vote shy of passage in 1999 — this year is the first she has asked women from around the state to show their support by going to the Capitol. The Rally for Women's Health Care was Monday at 11:30 a.m.

SB54 has been falsely labeled a "contraceptive only" bill, she said. "But prescription contraceptives are widely used as treatment for medical ailments such as ovarian cysts, endometriosis, reduced incidence of ovarian cancer and protection from some types of serious pregnancy complications."

Poulton said SB112 has initiated its own share of false public perceptions.

"This isn't about whether a woman chooses to use contraception," he said. "That is her right to make that decision, and we support her right to do so. It's about equity with other prescriptions, and we can achieve that without mandating it."

Are two bills necessary to get at resolving the issue? A blending of the two hasn't been ruled out. Even though that isn't likely, both senators have a sense of urgency to get the issue settled, they share goal of getting their bills to the floor as soon as possible.

They're both glad that now seems to be the time resolve the problem, they both appreciate the other's effort to address it, and they both hope their bill is the one that passes.

But at a news conference Monday, House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said, when asked about Poulton's bill, that it would not "get a great reception here."

"In the House we don't like to put mandates on health care," Garn said.

E-MAIL: jthalman@desnews.com