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N.H. Democrats backing birth control coverage

CONCORD, N.H. - Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Maggie Hassan and Democratic legislative leaders urged defeat Tuesday of a House bill that would allow employers with religious objections to exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans.

“Women should have freedom to make their own health care decisions,’’ Hassan, a former state senator from Exeter, said at a State House press conference. “The Legislature wants to give that power to employers. We should not go back to the days where women were paying up to $1,000 more a year out of pocket for basic health care.’’

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Hassan also called upon Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Kevin Smith and Ovide Lamontagne to tell voters where they stand. Her Democratic primary competitor, Jackie Cilley, former state senator, opposes the bill.

The House could vote Wednesday on the measure that the Democrats argue inserts the employer between a woman and her doctor. If the bill passes the House, it would go to the Senate. Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, has indicated that he does not like the bill, but has not said if he would veto it.

The bill would amend a 12-year-old law that requires health plans that include coverage for prescriptions to cover contraceptives. The law does not affect plans that do not offer drug coverage, nor does it affect employers who self-insure.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester self-insures, but not all Catholic institutions in the state do.

House Speaker William O’Brien, a Republican, calls it a matter of religious freedom to honor the beliefs of the Catholic Church and others who do not believe in birth control.

But Senate Democratic leader Sylvia Larsen disagreed.

“It really is about one thing: playing politics with women’s health care,’’ said Larsen, of Concord.

Smith said he supports an exemption for religious organizations, not all employers.

“The Legislature would be wise to be more specific about it,’’ he said.

Smith said granting an exemption to religious institutions protects their constitutional rights and has nothing to do with contraceptives.

Lamontagne said the focus should be on guaranteeing constitutionally protected religious freedoms.

“If elected governor, my approach would be to support passage of legislation creating a ‘conscience clause’ that exempts religious organizations from government mandates to provide contraception, where doing so would violate their faith and their constitutionally protected freedom of religion,’’ Lamontagne said in a statement.

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