Senate measure to limit health coverage voted down

WASHINGTON—The US Senate voted 51 to 48 today to kill a measure sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri that would have allowed any employer or health insurance plan to deny coverage of care – including contraceptives—based on moral or religious objections.

On the Senate floor this morning, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts pointedly criticized the Blunt amendment—whose cosponsors are mostly Republican, including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown – as an example of polarizing partisanship that has driven Maine Senator Olympia Snowe from running for reelection.

“I think our friend from Maine, Senator Snowe, spoke for many of us this week when she talked about ‘my way or the highway’ approaches to partisan politics that have made it harder and harder for people to work with each other and get things done,” Kerry said. “I would never speak for her, but given her diagnosis of what’s wrong with the Senate today, the amendment we’re debating seems to be exhibit A.”

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Snowe, a moderate Republican and three-term senator who criticized the fractious politics on the Hill in her surprise decision this week to leave Congress, also voted to set aside the Blunt amendment, calling it too broad. Her colleague Senator Susan Collins, who said earlier this week she was undecided, voted against tabling it.

Kerry said it contains “dangerously broad language.”

“Precision matters,” Kerry said. “This amendment opens up Pandora’s box – its overly broad and vague exceptions could allow children to be denied immunizations, companies to object to mental health services, health plans to deny HIV screenings, and the rejection of maternity care for single mothers. That is just not good legislating. It’s dangerous.”

The amendment, introduced last year and attached to a pending transportation bill, gained momentum following the uproar surrounding President Obama’s January announcement that universities and hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church and other religious groups need to provide free birth control as part of their employee health coverage.

While Kerry said he objected to forcing religiously affiliated institutions to pay for contraception if it violated their beliefs, he believed the compromise Obama made shortly after the controversy erupted struck a reasonable balance. The modification would exempt religious institutions from paying for the coverage as long as insurers picked up the tab.

“That was the right decision, and this week Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius made it clear they’re still working with the faith community on a final rule that will address the concerns of my church and other institutions which are self-insured,” Kerry said.

Kerry called the Blunt measure an “assault on the First Amendment” because “it imposes one view on those who do not share it or those who want to choose for themselves.” He said the amendment basically served as “a back-door dismantling of health care rights to protect religious liberty.”

Critics of the health reform law that mandates certain preventative health services be covered, including Brown, have derisively called “Obamacare” a violation of First Amendment rights. Brown has said he supports the Blunt measure not because he’s opposed to contraception, but because Obama’s health mandates trample on religious freedoms.

Brown has defended his position by invoking the support of a “conscience protection” for Catholic health care workers by his Senate predecessor, Edward M. Kennedy, the late Catholic Democrat. But Kennedy’s former staffers and his son have said Kennedy was referring to doctors and nurses who did not wish to perform abortions because it was against their religion, and he would not have supported limiting health insurance coverage.

Following the vote, Brown issued a statement reiterating his message that “it is a very dangerous thing when government can compel people to violate their religious beliefs.”

“I believe it’s possible to provide women with the access to the health care they want, while at the same time protecting the rights of Americans to follow their religious beliefs, just as we did in Massachusetts before Obamacare became law,” Brown said.

Collins, also a Maine moderate, said she ultimately voted against tabling the amendment with reservations. She said she felt she had little choice because the Obama administration did not directly address her concerns when she asked for a clarification on how the rule would apply to self-insured faith-based institutions.

“I do this with—with a lot of conflict because I think the amendment does have its flaws. But when the administration cannot even assure me that self-insured faith-based organizations’ religious freedoms are protected, I feel I have no choice,” Collins said. “I hope the amendment will be refined, and I also hope that the Senate will begin to address the many important pressing issues facing our nation and stop engaging in what is clearly an election-year ploy.”