Senate panel hears bill aimed at easing birth control access

JUNEAU — Representatives from Planned Parenthood, a union of current and former sex workers, small business owners and others testified Wednesday on a bill that would require insurance companies to pay claims for women in Alaska to get up to one year’s worth of contraception at a time.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, told the Senate Health and Social Services Committee she wanted to make it more convenient for women to get contraceptives, particularly in rural areas. She said it could help reduce unintended pregnancies.

During the bill’s first hearing, Gardner and her aide Katie Bruggeman said certain provisions in the bill would be taken out — including one that would have required insurance companies to pay for over-the-counter contraceptives.

“We recognize that it needs some changes, so we’re happy to be guided by the wishes of this committee,” Gardner said.

Three committee members — Republican Sens. Bert Stedman and Bill Stoltze and Democratic Sen. Johnny Ellis — heard testimony from women who said they supported easier access to contraception.

Several said it was onerous, sometimes impossible, to visit doctors every one to three months to refill prescriptions for birth control.

Elizabeth Figus, of Juneau, said she captains a commercial fishing vessel during the summer and considers the bill a “no-brainer” as many of the state’s residents spend significant portions of the year in remote locations where they have inconsistent access health care.

“We work seven days a week and spend five of these seven days at sea,” Figus said. “In the past, I’ve had to cancel doctor appointment repeatedly or delay departures in order to get crucial care for myself and my crew. While some of these visits may be unavoidable, having to alter schedules for something as simple as a preapproved prescription pickup is both a frustrating an unnecessary expense.”

Al Tamagni Sr., a representative of Alaska’s chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, spoke against the bill. He said it would exempt larger self-insured entities like the state, universities and Alaska Native corporations while requiring small businesses to shoulder the burden of paying for more contraceptives.

In its written comments on the bill, the federation said that the mandate would require specific drug coverage that could prevent employers from providing affordable insurance programs tailored to a specific workforce and raise costs.

Community United for Safety and Protection representative Maxine Doogan said her organization, which represents Alaska’s current and former sex workers, sex trafficking victims and allies, believed that expanding access to women’s health care is in the best interests of the state and could save the state money by reducing unintended pregnancies.

A study from the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which researches sexual and reproductive health found that in Alaska in 2010, more than 60 percent of the unplanned births in Alaska, or about 3,000 of them, were publicly funded. The state and federal government spent more than $113 million on those pregnancies, according to the report.

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