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Heller votes to limit law requiring birth control

Cristina Silva

Republican Sen. Dean Heller said women already have access to birth control under current federal and state health care laws and a Democratic-backed effort to provide woman with free contraception violates the U.S. Constitution.

Heller, who joined Senate Republicans to vote Thursday for a failed amendment that would have allowed employers and insurers to opt out of portions of President Barack Obama's health care law that they find morally objectionable, said he supports religious freedom under the First Amendment.

"All we are trying to revert to is the law of the land today, which doesn't limit access to contraception," he said in an interview with The Associated Press after the Thursday morning Senate vote. "This country spends billions on allowing for free access of contraception. Go to any health clinic and that access is available."

Heller said he was referring to federally-funded health centers, where patients pay what they can afford and do not need health insurance.

Heller said Democrats' complaints that the amendment sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, would have limited women's access to health care are "campaign rhetoric."

"No one is complaining today that the current law is bad," he said.

Heller, who was appointed to the Senate last year to replace resigning Republican John Ensign, is a Mormon.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada's other U.S. Senator, opposed the Blunt amendment.

Under the federal health care law passed in 2010, woman will get guaranteed access to birth control without co-pays or premiums no matter where they work by 2013. In a recent compromise, Obama announced that religious universities and hospitals that consider contraception an unconscionable violation of their faith can refuse to cover it. Insurance companies will then have to pay the bill. The compromise does not extend to businesses not affiliated with a faith organization, which the Blunt amendment sought to address.

The amendment defeated 51-48 in the Senate on Thursday would have allowed any employer or insurer to refuse any service "contrary to the provider's religious beliefs or moral convictions," according to the measure.

Under current policy, the U.S. government is one of the largest purchasers and distributors of contraceptives internationally, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. Low-income women who qualify for full Medicaid benefits cannot be charged for family planning services and supplies. In all, the United States will spend more than $610 million on family planning this year, according to Kaiser.

A majority of Americans support requiring religiously affiliated employers to provide birth control coverage, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll Feb. 8-13. The survey found that 61 percent favor the mandate, while 31 percent oppose it. Catholics, whose church strongly opposed the government mandate, also support the requirement.

Republicans and Democrats alike are using the contraception debate to rally their bases ahead of the November elections, and the issue could weigh heavily in Nevada's U.S. Senate race, as well.

Heller's general election rival, Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, said the Blunt amendment was overly broad and would have allowed employers to object to any health care service, including HIV treatment or mental health services. She called Heller's vote "anti-women."

"This is about one thing: Providing preventive care for women to ensure that they have basic access to health care," Berkley told the AP. "This is as fundamental to women as breathing."

Berkley said Obama's compromise already addressed the appropriate balance between employer's religious beliefs and employee's medical needs.

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The Associated Press