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Thursday February 09, 2012 | 12:52 PM

Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine are among the Republicans, and some Democrats, not happy with President Obama’s rule mandating that employers, including religious-affiliated hospitals and universities, provide insurance coverage of contraceptives.

But both Maine Republicans in the past have supported a bill – authored by Snowe and co-sponsored by Collins and others – that prohibited insurance plans to exclude contraceptives from their prescription benefits, notes Think Progress, a liberal blog.

“It really does get down to a matter of basic fairness, fairness to half of the nation's population, fairness in how we treat and view women's reproductive health care versus every other health care need that is addressed through prescription drug coverage,” Snowe said a Sept. 10 2001 hearing. “Make no mistake about it, the lack of coverage for prescription contraceptives in our health insurance policy has a very really impact on the lives of women in America, and certainly on our society as a whole.”

Collins, a member of the Senate health committee at the time, said in a statement that Snowe’s legislation was important because, “While women clearly view contraception as basic to their health and to their lives, health insurers in the United States traditionally have not. While health plans routinely cover other prescriptions and outpatient medical services, contraceptive coverage is meager or nonexistent in many health insurance policies.”

Snowe and Collins say they are not being inconsistent now when it comes to Obama’s birth-control rule because both supported including a “conscience clause” allowing religious-affiliated groups to opt out of the requirement.

The bill when introduced in 2001 did not include that opt out, and never passed, but Snowe’s office notes that she promised at a Sept. 10, 2011 hearing to work with religious groups on a conscience clause. The next day, of course, was 9/11, and work on the bill was shelved.

“There have been some questions about whether or not we should have a conscience clause, and we were able to draft an appropriate conscience clause in the legislation for Federal employees, and I know that we can do the same in this legislation, as well, to address any concerns for those with respect to being able to opt out because of religious beliefs,” Snowe said in that Sept. 10, 2001 hearing.

Maine like many states has a law stating that all plans that cover prescription drugs must also cover prescription contraceptives. Maine’s law offers a refusal, or conscience, clause to religious employers, allowing them to obtain a plan that excludes contraceptive coverage if such coverage conflicts with its “bona fide religious beliefs and practices.”

Think Progress says the Obama administration’s rule also already contains an exemption similar to Maine’s law.

But Collins and Snowe and other critics of the Obama contraceptive mandate rule, including some Democrats, say the conscience clause needs to be broadened and that the White House needs to work with religious groups on the issue.

“Senator Collins disagrees with the administration’s decision,” said Kevin Kelley, Collins’ spokesman. “She believes it presents the Catholic Church, and other faith-based organizations, with an impossible choice between violating their religious beliefs or complying with federal regulations.  Senator Collins believes, in issuing these regulations, the administration has chosen to ignore thousands of comments that were submitted expressing concern that the proposed narrow religious exemption is insensitive and a direct affront to the conscience and beliefs of many religious people and organizations.”

(Updated as of 2:40 p.m.: Kelley also said that Collins supported Snowe's bill because it placed a requirement on insurance companies to provide coverage, as opposed to Obama's rule which places a mandate on employers.

"Senator Collins supported Senator Snowe’s bill that would have required insurers who routinely cover prescription drugs and medical devices to also cover contraceptive care," Kelley said. "She does not support employer mandates—she made that clear during the health care debate."

At the 2001 hearing, Collins said that, “While some may be concerned that this is a mandate, it really is an equity issue. It does not require health plans to cover prescription drugs – it just prohibits them from carving out contraceptive care.”)

Collins is one of 26 GOP senators co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012, which Rubio says in a statement would “establish a firm religious exemption to this insurance requirement.”

Snowe is not a co-sponsor of Rubio’s bill. (Updated as of 8:30 p.m.: Snowe's office said she too signed on today to the Rubio bill.)

But she believes that Obama “should meet with religious leaders until they are satisfied that there are appropriate exemptions or conscience clauses,” said Chris Averill, Snowe’s spokesman.



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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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