UPDATE 12N ET You can exhale now. The Blunt Amendment was just defeated in the Senate 51-48.
There is a bill - S.1813 - America Fast Forward Financing Innovation Act of 2011 – coming up for a vote in the Senate soon. It is designed to protect 1.8 million existing highway jobs and create an estimated one million more. God knows the nation can use those jobs.
In normal times (which we have not seen in Congress since the election of President Barack Obama), the vote would be taken as a matter of course – little debate, no muss, no fuss.
But not this time.
That is because, in one of those instances that makes me crazy about how Congress works, Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) has attached a completely unrelated amendment - in this case, a religious/health/cultural bill co-sponsored by Senator Scott Brown (R-MA).
The Blunt Amendment, also referenced as the “conscience bill,” takes the arguments on contraceptive coverage we have been enduring recently to an unheard of extreme: his bill would not just reverse the Obama administration's birth control mandate, it would allow employers to refuse to include coverage in their employee health plans of any health service they choose.
Supporters of the Blunt Amendment disagree with that interpretation so I will let you decide: here is the exact language from the Amendment (full text here [pdf]):
"...a health plan shall not be considered to have failed to provide the essential health benefits package...to fail to be a qualified health plan or to fail to fulfill any other requirement under this title if it declines to provide coverage of specific items or services because -
“(i) providing coverage (or, in the case of a sponsor of a group health plan, paying for coverage) of such specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer or other entity offering the plan...
“Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, a health plan shall not be considered to have failed to provide timely or other access to items or services under this title...because it has respected the rights of conscience of such a provider...”
There you have it. Any business owner, CEO, etc. could decline coverage for his/her employees for contraception and – oh, how about childhood vaccines, treatment for HIV, STDs, prenatal care or anything else is it offends their personal religious or moral convictions - an extremely slippery slope that in this case includes anything under the sun.
It has become so controversial that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced Tuesday he will allow a vote on the Blunt Amendment (not including the highway bill) today, Thursday:
"After discussing it with numerous senators," said Reid, "I decided we should set up a vote on contraception and women's health. Once we've put this extreme and distracting proposal behind us, I hope my Republican colleagues will stop living in the past and join us this year, 2012."
Senator Reid might have noted that the Blunt Amendment goes further than contraception and women's health which, alone, are awful enough. But it would permit denial of coverage for any health item or service whatsoever at a business executive's personal whim.
Many groups oppose the Blunt Amendment including The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Easter Seals, Families USA, the March of Dimes, the Spina Bifida Association.
And so should elders. Because we are privileged to enjoy the closest thing to a single-payer system the U.S. has ever known (as much under assault as Medicare may be), our good fortune makes it imperative to help ensure that our children and grandchildren are not forced into even less health care than they have now before they are old enough for Medicare.
Although I have lately come to question the usefulness of online petitions, they can't hurt. I found three objecting to the Blunt Amendment:
If you are reading this early enough in the day before the vote, it might be more effective to call your senators. You can telephone the U.S. Congress main number (202.224.3121) and ask to be connected to them by name.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ron Figueroa: The Wayward Way