Birth control: Trump expands opt-out for workplace insurance

Published: Friday, October 06, 2017 @ 11:21 AM
Updated: Friday, October 06, 2017 @ 11:19 AM

            In this July 24, 2017 photo, President Donald Trump speaks about healthcare in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington. Trump is allowing more employers to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women by claiming religious or moral objections, issuing new rules Friday that take another step in rolling back the Obama health care law. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
In this July 24, 2017 photo, President Donald Trump speaks about healthcare in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington. Trump is allowing more employers to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women by claiming religious or moral objections, issuing new rules Friday that take another step in rolling back the Obama health care law. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump is allowing more employers to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women by claiming religious or moral objections, issuing new rules Friday that take another step in rolling back the Obama health care law.

Employers with religious or moral qualms will also be able to cover some birth control methods, and not others. Experts said that could interfere with efforts to promote modern long-acting implantable contraceptives, such as IUDs, which are more expensive.

The new policy was a long-anticipated revision to Affordable Care Act requirements that most companies cover birth control as preventive care for women, at no additional cost. That Obama-era requirement applies to all FDA-approved methods, including the morning-after pill, which some religious conservatives call an abortion drug, though scientists say it has no effect on women who are already pregnant.

As a result of the ACA, most women no longer pay for contraceptives. Several advocacy groups immediately announced plans to try to block the Trump administration rule. "We are preparing to see the government in court," said Brigitte Amiri, a senior attorney for the ACLU.

Catholic bishops called the administration's move a "return to common sense."

Trump's religious and moral exemption is expected to galvanize both his opponents and religious conservatives who back him, but it seems unlikely to have a major impact on America's largely secular workplaces.

"I can't imagine that many employers are going to be willing to certify that they have a moral objection to standard birth control methods," said Dan Mendelson, president of the consulting firm Avalere Health.

That said, Mendelson said he worries the new rule will set a precedent for weakening ACA requirements that basic benefits be covered. "If you look at it as a public health issue, it is a step in the wrong direction, and it weakens the protections of the ACA," he said.

Tens of thousands of women could be affected by Trump's policy, but the vast majority of companies have no qualms about offering birth control benefits through their health plans. Human resource managers recognize that employers get an economic benefit from helping women space out their pregnancies, since female workers are central to most enterprises.

The administration estimated that some 200 employers who have already voiced objections to the Obama-era policy would qualify for the expanded opt-out, and that 120,000 women would be affected.

However, it's unclear how major religion-affiliated employers such as Catholic hospitals and universities will respond. Many Catholic hospitals now rely on an Obama-era workaround under which the government pays for the cost of birth control coverage. That workaround can continue under the new rules.

Since contraception became a covered preventive benefit, the share of women employees paying with their own money for birth control pills has plunged to 3 percent, from 21 percent, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation figures.

"It was really important for women to have a choice of the full range of contraceptive methods that were FDA-approved," said Alina Salganicoff, director of women's health policy for the Kaiser foundation. "This will now make it up to the employer whether or not to cover contraception, and whether to cover all methods."

Salganicoff said she's concerned about coverage for implantable devices that are more expensive but also much more effective. "It opens up a lot of opportunities for employers to make choices about the coverage that women have right now," she said.

The Trump administration's revision broadens a religious exemption that previously applied to houses of worship, religion-affiliated nonprofit groups and closely held private companies. Administration officials said the new policy defends religious freedom. In addition to nonprofits, privately held businesses will be able to seek an exemption on religious or moral grounds, while publicly traded companies can seek an exemption due to religious objections.

"No American should be forced to violate his or her own conscience in order to abide by the laws and regulations governing our health care system," Health and Human Services spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the administration's decision.

"Such an exemption is no innovation, but instead a return to common sense, long-standing federal practice, and peaceful coexistence between church and state," Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the group's president, said in a joint statement with Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, head of its religious liberty committee.

Officials also said the administration is tightening oversight of how plans sold under the health law cover abortion. With limited exceptions, abortions can only be paid for through a separate premium collected from enrollees.

Doctors' groups that were instrumental in derailing Republican plans to repeal the health law expressed their dismay.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the new policy could reverse progress in lowering the nation's rate of unintended pregnancies.

"HHS leaders under the current administration are focused on turning back the clock on women's health," said the organization's president, Dr. Haywood Brown.

The new rules take effect right away.


Crary reported from New York. AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.

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Area students join push to end school gun violence, but division remains

Published: Saturday, March 24, 2018 @ 11:21 AM

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24:  People protest during the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. More than 800 March for Our Lives events, organized by survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting on February 14 that left 17 dead, are taking place around the world to call for legislative action to address school safety and gun violence.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24: People protest during the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. More than 800 March for Our Lives events, organized by survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting on February 14 that left 17 dead, are taking place around the world to call for legislative action to address school safety and gun violence. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The debate over how to stop the ceaseless and senseless taking of lives by mass shooters is louder than it has been in years — and nowhere louder than in and around American schools.

Spurred last month by young survivors of a high school shooting that killed 17 of their classmates, teachers and coaches in Parkland, Fla., a movement this month spilled out of school doors across the country and in southwest Ohio, where students called for action.

“Teenagers from high schools all across the nation have risen up to demand change,” said Suhavi Salmon, a junior at Springboro High School, who joined thousands more students across southwest Ohio in March 14 walkouts to remember the Marjory Stonemen Douglas High School dead.

RELATED: Thousands of Ohio students walk out: ‘Community should be very proud’

On Saturday, marchers of all ages called on legislators to do more to prevent gun violence and mass shootings at a massive youth-led demonstration in Washington, D.C., and at more than 800 other rallies across the world and in cities including Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.

Ohioans of all ages — from students, to parents, to cops, to legislators — say the gunfire must stop.

Many agree that more resource officers, counselors in schools and earlier detection of mental illness and better treatment are wise steps. But the nation remains divided — even among the young — on other proposals to prevent killings: universal background checks, increased restrictions on assault-style rifles or arming teachers with guns – a controversial practice already implemented on a limited basis in some area schools.

RELATED: Teachers with guns? Some Ohio districts arm staff but don’t tell public

About 400 Centerville High School students participated in the March 14 walkout, but another 20 students demonstrated with signs in support of the National Rifle Association.

A group of young demonstrators made coordinated signs for the rally in Washington, D.C.(People Magazine)

Logan Cole was hit twice inside West Liberty-Salem High School by shotgun blasts allegedly fired by fellow student Ely Serna on Jan. 20, 2017. While many are calling for more restrictions on guns, the local survivor of a school shooting declined to join a walkout there he thought politicized a heated Second Amendment issue.

“I feel like violence in our schools and our societies is a much deeper issue,” Cole said. “And I feel like it’s a little bit simplistic to look at this and point out gun control as the problem.”

RELATED: Local student shot at school urges classmates not to walk out

But unending school shootings — from Columbine, to Sandy Hook, to Marjory Stonemen Douglas — have left the nation’s students in a perpetual state of fear and stifle learning, say kids and educators.

J.J. Miller, 17, of Baltimore, Md., blows bubbles as crowds arrive for the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Even unfounded threats such as one March 7 at Dayton’s Belmont High School put students on edge and disrupt schooling.

“I literally started crying and ran out the door,” said Jasmyne Scott, a Belmont freshman, when the report of a student with a gun spread through the building and shaken students spilled out of the doors.

“Everyone just started running,” she said.

RELATED: Belmont High School students believing gun threat hide, flee classes

This month at a Schools, Guns, and Safety Town Hall organized by WHIO and the Dayton Daily News, state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said legislators have been rendered near mute on the issues, singling out fellow statehouse Republicans.

“One place I don’t feel there’s a real robust conversation going on is frankly in the legislature,” she said. “There are one-on-one discussions but nowhere near the active, vibrant conversation I think needs to take place.”

Part of the difficulty in finding consensus is a fear that any action will lead to encroachment of Second Amendment rights, Lehner said.

MORE: School safety panel agrees on counselors, splits on armed officers

“I believe it’s very possible to take some steps that will not in any way interfere with an individual’s right to own arms,” she said.

J.J. Miller, 17, of Baltimore, Md., blows bubbles as crowds arrive for the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“There’s nobody in this room or in this community or in this state who wants to ever see another gun shooting take place — another school shooting — and yet the solutions seem to be so elusive,” Lehner said.

Last week, Democrats in the Ohio Senate introduced legislation that would allow police to seize firearms from people who seem to be at risk of harming themselves or others. Also supported by Republican Gov. John Kasich, the “Red Flag Law” could be used to remove guns from people with mental illness who failed to take prescribed medications.

RELATED: Gun control advocates push for ‘red flag’ law in Ohio

The proposal drew immediate opposition by Second Amendment advocates.

“Taking someone’s property without due process is wrong. It’s completely un-American,” said Jim Irvine, board president of the Buckeye Firearms Association. “Gun control is a failed idea. Continuing to push it is refusing to accept reality.”

The burden placed on teachers and administrators to keep students safe is enormous, say some educators. Active shooter drills and armed resource officers in schools only heighten the angst of young people, some already struggling in chaotic environments, some say.

MORE: Local superintendent after mass shooting: ‘The kids are scared’

Other districts locally and in Ohio have allowed trained staff access to weapons in schools.

VIDEO: Scenes from March for Our Lives Rallies

Mad River Local Schools implemented an armed response team two years ago, said Jerry Ellender, the district’s treasurer. Sidney City Schools has a nearly identical program adopted in 2013. The guns aren’t carried by staff members, but remain in safes that can be unlocked by volunteers with firearms training.

“We don’t want a gun floating around that’s accessible to a student or taken away from a teacher and used by a student,” Ellender said.

Some districts have gone so far as to allow staff members to carry concealed weapons. Edgewood City Schools in Butler County adopted a concealed carry policy in 2013, and last year Georgetown Exempted Village Schools east of Cincinnati turned to directly arming teachers.

“It’s ultimately about putting people in place to protect the house,” said Georgetown Superintendent Chris Burrow. “We hope and pray it would never be us, but at the end of the day, we have to be ready in seconds and not minutes.”

RELATED: Guns in school: ‘We have to be ready in seconds and not minutes’

David Romick, president of the Dayton Education Association, told Dayton Board of Education members last week that guns are the last tool educators need to battle school shooters.

“Arming teachers and bringing more potential violence to the schoolhouse is not the answer,” Romick said. “Instead, arm all educators with counselors, mental health services and other wraparound services to serve the children and families who need them most.”

Charlie Ross, a junior at Oakwood High School who participated in the safety town hall, voiced similar concerns.

“I think I can say overwhelmingly we find the idea of arming our own teachers to be a very daunting and scary idea. It will ruin our learning environment,” Ross said. “I personally believe — and especially from talking to my fellow students — that a good way to prevent these unfortunate shootings from happening is again to focus on counselors and identifying such troubled students before we even get to an active shooter situation.”

MORE: ACLU warns Ohio schools: We’re watching how you handle student protests

More school resource officers and better mental health care — two steps believed most politically achievable — suffer from a lack of funding, advocates of both say.

“We have to find the money, eliminate the excuses and get this done,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, calling for more law enforcement officers to work directly with schools.

Joni Watson, a teacher at Horace Mann School in Dayton and vice president of the Dayton Education Association, said more resources can help turn troubled lives around and prevent future tragedies.

“We need money for mental health services, that’s the bottom line,” Watson said. “Every single time there’s a school shooting, you hear that the child was isolated, the child felt bullied, the child felt like he or she didn’t belong — every single time.”

Staff writers Laura Bischoff, Will Garbe and Jeremy P. Kelley contributed to this report.

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Democrats hope marches can sway Congress on guns

Published: Saturday, March 24, 2018 @ 12:00 AM

After watching lawmakers agree to two bills this week dealing with guns and school safety in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Democrats say the gun violence marches around the nation on Saturday have the chance to change the political dynamic on gun control in the Congress.

“Their hope gives me hope,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and others who have joined in calling for action on gun violence.

“Their determination gives me determination,” Nelson said at a U.S. Capitol news conference, even as he and other Democrats again acknowledged that they are far from having the votes to press ahead with gun control plans.

Among the plans that Democrats have focused on in recent weeks include:

+ The Manchin-Toomey ‘universal background checks’ bill, which would require checks for almost all private gun sales.

+ A federal law raising the minimum age to purchase a weapon to 21, mirrored on a law just passed by the state of Florida.

+ A ban on the sale of weapons like the AR-15.

+ Limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

“We have an important role to play in insuring that no students should ever be afraid to walk down the hallway of their school,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), whose district includes Parkland, Florida.

“It is our job, and everyone working in that building behind us, to pass laws, to keep our communities safe,” Deutch said at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol.

But the last five weeks were also a reminder of the difficulty of acting on any gun-related legislation – no matter how minor it might be.

The “Fix NICS” bill approved this week as part of a giant spending bill was bipartisan, yet it also had some sharp opposition from Republicans in the House.

And that makes the idea of the ‘Buy 21’ bill, or any ban on assault weapons, difficult to see getting through the Congress, unless there is major change in the makeup of the U.S. House and Senate.

“You know the politics, but you got to start somewhere,” said Nelson. “This is the first step at the federal level.”

“There is no better example of the youth of our country becoming engaged, than in this march,” said Deutch.

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Defense gets major increase, pay raise for troops in budget plan

Published: Thursday, March 22, 2018 @ 5:42 PM
Updated: Thursday, March 22, 2018 @ 5:42 PM

            Air Force Research Laboratory headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base could benefit from budget plan that passed the U.S. House Thursday. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Air Force Research Laboratory headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base could benefit from budget plan that passed the U.S. House Thursday. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Congress has passed a massive spending bill which includes $700 billion for defense, spends billions more on aircraft, ships and tanks and provides a 2.4 percent pay hike for troops.

The $60 billion increase in military spending is the biggest in 15 years.

The budget plan also includes $300 million to continue cleaning the Great Lakes, $400 million for cleanup at a closed uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, and millions of dollars for Ohio to combat opioid addiction.

The $1.3 trillion measure, which was passed by the House on Thursday and the Senate on Friday, keeps the federal government open until the end of September. But Friday morning, President Donald Trump signed the bill Friday after he threatened to veto it because it did not include money for a resolution for those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and failed to fully fund a wall across the country’s southern border.

The Air Force share of defense spending is $183.6 billion, which also aims to add 4,000 airmen by 2020, Air Force officials have said. It includes nearly $25 billion for procurement of aircraft, space vehicles, missiles, and ammunition and more than $49 billion for operations and maintenance, budget documents show.

RELATED: Top AF leader: ‘You have to say, that’s not good enough’

“For the Air Force, the higher level of spending in the budget bill offers an opportunity to fix nagging readiness problems while moving forward with long delayed plans to replace Cold War aircraft,” Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, said in an email. “It also provides seed money for a transformation in how the Air Force will assure U.S. air and space superiority in the future.”

The spending bill includes $1.08 billion to upgrade the Abrams M-1 tank. Most of that money will be spent at the JSMC plant in Lima.

Across all research, testing and technology accounts, it adds $25.6 billion, documents show.

Impact at Wright-Patterson

The influx of dollars is a particular windfall for research spending at the Air Force Research Laboratory headquarters at Wright-Patterson, observers said.

“For Wright Patterson, the impending budget increase signals a surge in research spending to unprecedented peace time levels,” Thompson said. “This could be the beginning of a golden age for the Air Force’s premier research and modernization site if Washington can find a way of keeping spending levels high in the years ahead.”

AFRL’s budget could exceed last year’s level of $4.8 billion, which was nearly split between government appropriations and sponsored research.

EXCLUSIVE: AF leader: total dominance not a ‘birthright’

This time, about $1.2 billion of that in government appropriations is headed to Wright-Patterson, according to spokespersons in U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office.

A breakdown of other budgets at Wright-Patterson was not yet available, spokeswoman Marie Vanover said Thursday.

But in some research accounts, such as materials and aerospace vehicles, spending could rise as much as 20 percent, said Michael Gessel, vice president of federal programs at the Dayton Development Coalition.

The budget boost bodes well for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, also headquartered at Wright-Patterson, with money beyond the president’s request to procure more aircraft and will jump start new contracts that had been on hold without a permanent budget, Gessel said.

“The larger, overall funding level provided by this bill, which is accompanied by additional flexibility on spending authority, will relieve many budgetary pressures as the funding makes its way from Washington to field operations, including Wright-Patterson,” Gessel said in an email.

“There are provisions which give more flexibility in personnel management of civilian defense workers. This is important to Wright-Patterson because of the large percentage of civilians who work on the base.”

RELATED: Rep. Turner: Committee report won’t dispute Putin tried to help Trump

Non-defense spending

The bill provides $3 billion to reduce opioid addiction, of which $1 billion is set aside for grants that will go directly to the states. Fifteen percent of the state grant money has been earmarked for states which have been hardest by opioids, such as Ohio.

“This is good news for Ohio and good news for the millions of Americans who continue to struggle with addiction,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “I’m particularly pleased that the bill includes $60 million for states to develop an infant plan of safe care to help newborns exposed to opioids and their families.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said “while we know there is more work to be done,” the money in the bill “is a meaningful step forward for Ohio.”

The money for the Great Lakes was inserted into the bill after the White House did not include any money for the program, known as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The program has strong bipartisan backing from lawmakers from both parties, such as Portman and Brown.

Both Brown and Portman pushed for more money to continue the cleanup at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, about 65 miles south of Columbus. The $400 million, Brown said, should guarantee no additional layoffs at the facility.

RELATED: Memphis Belle towed into Air Force museum for first time

How Ohio lawmakers voted

The House passed the measure by a vote of 256-to-167 with local Republicans Mike Turner of Dayton and Steve Chabot of Cincinnati voting yes.

Republicans Jim Jordan of Urbana and Warren Davidson of Troy voted no.

In an interview on Fox News, Jordan complained that the 2,200-page bill “grows the government at a $1.3 trillion price tag which will lead to a trillion dollar deficit,” adding “this may be the worst bill I have seen in my time in Congress.”

By contrast, Columbus-area Congressman Steve Stivers said the measure “provides critical funding for our military and veterans, resources for opioid addiction prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation, and resources for our schools to keep our kids safe.”

The Senate must approve the bill because lawmakers from both parties were unable to agree on a budget for the 2018 spending year which began on October 1 and ends on September 30. By passing the bill, the Senate guarantees the government will remain open for next seven months.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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Trump backs off veto threat, signs giant federal spending bill

Published: Friday, March 23, 2018 @ 9:43 AM

Creating a bit of legislative drama, President Donald Trump threatened on Friday to veto a massive $1.3 trillion spending bill, and then after a few hours of leaving Congress in limbo, Mr. Trump backed off and signed the bill into law, expressing his frustration over limited funding for his campaign vow to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

"There are a lot of things that I'm unhappy about in this bill," the President told reporters, as he vowed, "I will never sign another bill like this again."

The 2,232 page plan had been unveiled by GOP leaders in Congress on Wednesday night, and then rushed through the House and Senate – with bipartisan support – but the President made clear he didn’t like the final product, stacked high on a table next to him.

“Nobody read it and it’s only hours old,” the President fumed.

In expressing his frustration, the President called on Congress to give him line-item veto authority, so he could strike out specific items in spending bills – but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that power can only be given to the President by an amendment to the Constitution.

The President also turned his ire on the rules of the Senate, demanding again that Senators end the requirement to get 60 votes to end filibusters – that does not have the support of a number of GOP Senators.

The Friday drama was a complete surprise to Republicans on Capitol Hill, as the White House had made clear that the President would sign the bill – no matter some of his reservations – as lawmakers left town yesterday and today for a two week Easter break.

And then, the President tweeted just before 9 am.

On the issue of DACA and the border wall, Mr. Trump has accused Democrats of not helping resolve the status of illegal immigrant ‘Dreamers’ in the United States, while Democrats say he’s at fault.

“DACA was abandoned by the Democrats,” the President said in an earlier tweet. “Would have been tied to desperately needed Wall.”

But while the White House accused Democrats of standing in the way of a DACA deal, they argued Mr. Trump had multiple chances to accept an agreement, as Democratic leaders had offered him $25 billion to build the wall, in exchange for a plan that would put the Dreamers on a 10-12 year path to possible U.S. citizenship.

The President rejected that, leading to the negotiation of the $1.3 trillion funding bill, which gave $1.6 billion to work on the wall.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats blasted the President.

“One of the best things we Democrats have going for us is that Trump really has no idea what he’s doing,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA).

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