on population, reproductive health & ethics

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (USA), August 18, 2004

Milwaukee Archdiocese reviews birth control opinion

No plans in place to change insurance policy after Lautenschlager's ruling

Madison -- The Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese is taking no action -- at least for now -- in response to state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager's legal opinion that employers who provide prescription drug insurance must cover contraceptives.

Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Tuesday that lawyers were reviewing Lautenschlager's opinion but that it had no immediate plans to change the insurance coverage of 2,500 employees in the central office and in parishes.

The archdiocese's insurance plan does not cover contraception if it is used to prevent pregnancy, though it will cover it to treat symptoms of menopause, Hohl said.

Two other large, Milwaukee-based Catholic employers, Marquette University and life insurer Catholic Knights, said the attorney general's opinion would have less impact on them because they already provide contraceptive coverage.

But Marquette lawyers will review the opinion because the school's drug plan does not cover the so-called morning-after pill, spokesman Ben Tracy said. Catholic Knights spokeswoman Karren Jeske said she was not sure whether its insurance covered the morning-after pill.

Lautenschlager issued her formal opinion Monday in response to a request from state Secretary of Health and Family Services Helene Nelson.

Denying coverage of contraceptives while providing other prescriptions violates state and federal anti-discrimination laws, Lautenschlager wrote in the opinion.

The opinion matches the argument Lautenschlager put forth last year in a letter to state Sen. Gwendolynne Moore (D-Milwaukee), but by writing a formal opinion she has issued a document that can be cited in legal briefs. Although opinions by attorneys general do not carry the force of law, they are often given a great deal of credence in the absence of Wisconsin court decisions.

Lautenschlager said the decision includes the morning-after pill, a high dose of birth control medication taken in the 72 hours after unprotected sex. Some abortion opponents consider the regimen a form of abortion.

Susan Armacost, legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life, said abortion opponents believe the opinion is a first step toward requiring employers to provide not just contraceptives, but RU-486, which chemically induces an abortion.

"We're concerned about the slippery slope," she said. "Mandating abortion -- that's what we're afraid of."

Lautenschlager's office denied that, saying the matter of RU-486, or mifepristone, fell outside the scope of the attorney general's opinion.

"That's just a scare tactic," said Lautenschlager aide Deirdre Morgan.

A boost to cases

Public employees who have filed civil rights complaints against Marathon County and Green Bay cheered the opinion, saying it would bolster their cases.

Last month, an administrative law judge ruled that Green Bay must pay for prescription contraceptives for police clerk Ann Anderson and other employees. Anderson said she filed the complaint after her purchase of contraceptives was denied by her insurer, even though the insurer allows $500 a year for preventive treatment.

"To me, I don't know where else preventative care could be more cut and dried," she said Tuesday.

Anderson had a daughter a couple of years ago after an unplanned pregnancy.

"When you look at the cost of $30 a month versus a birth, they cost themselves . . . a ton of money," she said of the city.

Anderson filed the complaint on her own, but the judge ruled that the city must provide prescription contraceptives to all female employees who ask for it, said Anderson's attorney, Danielle Carne.

The office of City Attorney Jerry Hanson did not return phone calls Tuesday, but Carne said city officials told her they have not decided whether they would appeal.

Three Marathon County employees are looking to the ruling in Anderson's case and Lautenschlager's decision to boost their own civil rights cases seeking payment of contraceptives.

Ann Marie Peters, a county nurse who has filed one of the cases, said the county was not adequately considering finances in its decision not to cover contraceptives.

"Their cost models aren't looking at pregnancies they'll be preventing," Peters said.

Frank Matel, employee resources director for the county, said the county estimated it would cost $20,000 to $60,000 to provide the coverage. The county employs about 740.

Lautenschlager's opinion would have little influence on how the county proceeds, he said.

"I think we had a preview to that a year ago, so it's not really a surprise," Matel said, referring to Lautenschlager's earlier, informal opinion.

The county would prefer to resolve the matter through collective bargaining, he said. But Lon Newman of the Wausau-based Wisconsin Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association scoffed at that idea.

"Civil rights isn't bargainable," he said.

Newman's group helped put the employees in touch with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, which is heading the Marathon County cases.

<< Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- 8/18/04 >>

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