Lawmakers tackle several women’s health issues related to insurance coverage

Bills would require employers to pay for abortions, contraceptives

The debate took four years to hit the Washington Senate floor in early February.

The topic was a bill by Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, to require an employer that provides health insurance to include contraceptive and abortion coverage at no extra cost to that employee.

This was a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s so-called Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014 that declared for-profit companies can refuse to pay for birth control on religious grounds.

In early February, the Senate passed Hobbs’ bill 26-21 to send it to the House with only Republican Sen. Joe Fain of Auburn crossing party lines.

On  Feb. 28, the House passed it 50-48 along party lines with a couple of tweaks to send it back to the Senate to get its approval.

Since 2015, the GOP Senate leadership has killed this legislation annually until the Democrats took over the Senate this year.

This is one piece of an unleashed logjam of bills oriented toward women. Several bills have been stalled for years by the Senate GOP leadership and this year sailed through the Legislature with Democrats in control of both chambers.

In December 2012, the GOP took control of the 49-member Senate with a coalition of 24 Republicans and two Democrats — Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch. While a fiscal conservative, Tom leaned left on social issues. Meanwhile, a couple of other moderate Republicans — Fain and Steve Litzow of Mercer Island — appeared inclined to support some Democratic bills on social matters.

But the original 26-member coalition in 2013 — co-led by Tom and conservative Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville — agreed not to touch social issue bills and instead to tackle primarily budget bills.  So the moderates in the majority coalition never could vote on women-oriented bills. This situation lasted from 2013 through 2017 when Democrats earned a 25-24 edge in the Senate.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, has been a leader on trying to get women-focused bills through the Senate, and is happy with the change in majorities.

“We’re taking care of a huge backlog that has already been worked on,” she said.

Keiser noted the bills that zoomed through the session were tweaked and fine-tuned for three or four years in their previous unsuccessful attempts to get through the Senate. Consequently, most flaws and concerns already have been addressed. She also said the recent #MeToo movement raised people’s consciousness of the issues. Sen. Kevin Ranker, a Democrat, said the Legislature is now reflecting social attitudes held by the majority of Washington residents.

Keiser speculated that bills on women’s issues might move slower in 2019, assuming Democrats keep control after this November’s elections, because they will have to be written from scratch and won’t have gone through years of fix-it work. She speculated that more matters on health care for women and dealing with problems of the 21st century’s gig economy, where more people work as contractors, will become major social issues in the 2019 session.

“I don’t think we’ll have the problems of sexism and equal pay fixed,” she said.

Here is a rundown of other women-oriented bills the Legislature tackled this session:


Reproductive Parity Act

This Hobbs bill would require maternity insurance to also cover abortions. An abortion’s basic costs are about $600.

“It’s unfair that an employer’s religious beliefs should decide whether someone has access to insurance,” argued Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, on the Senate’s floor.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas added: “No company, no corporation, no boss has any business making health care choices for their employees. It is their personal choice.”

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, countered: “People of faith should be able to abide by their faith, not to have secular values imposed upon them.”

On Feb. 28, the House debate took the same tack.

Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said: “You should trust a woman to make the decision for herself.” Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, countered: “These owners should be able to choose what to do with their businesses.”

Rep. Bill Jenkin, R-Prosser, told an emotional story to the House about how he and his wife decided that she should have an abortion when he was 20 and she was 18. The abortion occurred, but soon afterward, it was discovered his wife had a second fetus in her womb — a twin who was born. Their daughter is now 38 years old.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world to know that twin could have been alive today,” Jenkin said.

Jenkin, and Reps. Larry Haler, R-Richland, Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, and Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, and Sens. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, voted against the bill.

Jenkin and Nealey cited increasing health insurance costs for their opposition. “It’s the premature taking of a human life,” Haler said.

Klippert pointed to The Arc of the Tri-Cities, which helps developmentally disabled children and their families. He said disabled children are frequently targeted for abortions.

“These children are so precious. Somebody chose to give life to them,” Klippert said.

The Senate passed the tweaked House version 27-22 on March 3.

According to the Washington Department of Health, the state’s abortion rate in 2015 was 12.5 percent compared to 25.7 percent in 1991. In other words, in 1991, a total of 110,778 women became pregnant and 30,390 had abortions. In 2015, a total of 106,716 Washington women became pregnant, and 17,208 had abortions. The 2015 figures are the latest available.

Benton County had 9.8 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 2015, down from 11.2 abortions per 1,000 in 2011, according to state health department figures. In Franklin County, that ratio dropped from 12.5 per 1,000 in 2011 to 8.3 per 1,000 in 2015.

The most abortions in percentages of pregnancies are in the more populated Puget Sound counties.  In 2015, Pierce County had the highest rate of 16.3 percent, followed by King County at 14.2 percent of all pregnancies in 2015.


Strengthening equal pay laws

Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, and Cleveland introduced twin bills in 2017 to bolster the law that men and women in equal jobs with equal duties must be paid the same. The bills also would enable women to find out the pay of their male counterparts — meaning businesses cannot hide that information from them. The bills provide for investigation and penalties by the state Department of Labor and Industries.

Senn’s bill passed the House in 2017 with some Republican support before the then-GOP Senate leadership stopped both bills. Both were revived this year. The House passed Senn’s bill with a bipartisan it 69-28 tally. Haler voted for the bill, and Klippert and Jenkin voted against it. Nealey was absent. The Senate passed Senn’s bill 36-12, with Brown supporting it and Walsh absent. Walsh was recovering from a mild heart attack and had missed some floor votes.


Sexual harassment

A Keiser bill sailed through the Senate 48-0 Senate vote and the House 98-0 to require the state’s Human Rights Commission to set up a work group to develop model policies and best practices for employers and employees to keep workplaces safe from sexual harassment.

Then the commission and the Washington Department of Labor and Industries would post those model policies and best practices on their websites for businesses to study and use.

Both chambers unanimously passed a Keiser bill to prohibit employers from requiring a worker, as a condition of employment, to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prevents the employee from disclosing sexual harassment or sexual assault occurring in the workplace, at work-related events, or between employees, or between an employer and an employee.

Any nondisclosure agreement signed by an employee as a condition of employment that prevents the disclosure or discussion of sexual harassment or sexual assault becomes unenforceable.

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