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Women’s Groups Demand Pill Equality

May 31, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Insurance companies’ willingness to pay for the male impotence pill Viagra has angry women’s groups pressing Congress to require coverage of prescription female contraceptives as well.

They insist it’s unfair that insurers help men have more and better sex, while many of the same companies won’t help women avoid unwanted pregnancies that might result. Insurers respond that coverage is available for birth control, but it’s unpopular with employers.

``Viagra, in all seriousness, means more sex. And more sex means more need for effective contraception,″ complained Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation.

A 1994 report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health, found that 97 percent of large group health insurance plans pay for prescription drugs, but only a third covered birth control pills.

The Pill won government approval almost 40 years ago.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Viagra in March. The private consulting group IMS says almost half the 300,000 men taking Viagra weekly already are reimbursed, at least in part, by their health insurers. Up to 73 percent of patients using rival impotence treatments also are reimbursed, said IMS, which tracks drug statistics.

``It’s absurd that women must face this choice,″ Ms. Feldt said.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., introduced a bill last year to require health insurers that pay for prescription drugs to cover prescription contraceptives, devices and services. Similar legislation takes effect in Maryland in October, and a few other states also require some insurance coverage of birth control.

Opponents of the Snowe-Greenwood bill contend artificial contraceptives are optional, but impotence is not.

And the bill’s chances of passage appear slim. Women’s groups exercise little power in the Republican-controlled Congress, while powerful business and religious interests oppose the legislation.

Business groups oppose on the ground that such a law would increase health care costs.

``Anything that adds cost to health coverage we oppose, because it winds up, in its incremental effect, pricing people out of coverage,″ said Neil Trautwein, health care policy manager for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Richard Coorsh, spokesman for the Health Insurance Association of America, said most insurers offer plans that cover contraception, but employers who pay for health care choose not to buy them. His industry also opposes Snowe’s bill and mandated benefits in general because it fears higher costs for everyone.

``It’s a mandate for contraceptive services, which are elective services,″ said Cathy Deeds, a public policy analyst for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes the bill and the use of artificial contraceptives.

At the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, however, the position is that contraception is a must for women of child-bearing age. In pushing for congressional action, the organization cited a 1994 study by the Women’s Research and Education Institute that found that women spend 68 percent more for health care than men, largely because of reproductive care.

As a result, women who can’t afford $30 for a month’s supply of birth control pills often turn to cheaper, less reliable forms of contraception and risk unwanted pregnancies, women’s advocates say. Almost half the estimated 3.6 million unplanned pregnancies in the United States each year end in abortion, the Guttmacher Institute said.

``To ignore the health benefits of contraception is to say that the alternative of 12 to 15 pregnancies during a woman’s lifetime is medically acceptable,″ said Luella Klein, director of women’s health issues for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Coverage also makes financial sense, the groups say. A year’s supply of birth control pills costs much less than the tab for nine months of maternity care and eventually delivery.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a Senate sponsor, said lack of interest in the issue ``shows to me what happens when you have a male-dominated legislature. If this were a problem that affected men, this thing would have passed decades ago.″

Aware of the long odds against his ``Pill Bill,″ Greenwood said House sponsors would try to require federal employee health plans to pay for prescription contraceptives. The Republican-controlled Congress, he noted, has prohibited the plans from paying for abortions.

``If we’re going to tell a woman you can’t get an abortion,″ he said, ``then for God’s sake let’s help them prevent unwanted pregnancies.″

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