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BILL REQUIRING INSURERS TO COVER BIRTH CONTROL REMAINS DEADLOCKED

Legislation requiring insurance coverage for contraceptives for women continued to be stalled as Democrats and Republicans debated Tuesday over whether to grant a "conscience clause" exempting religious-owned entities.

The issue had been ignored by lawmakers assigned to a Senate and Assembly panel trying to reach a consensus on the legislation, which has women's health care groups going head to head with the Catholic Church.

But calm over the issue ended toward the end of a public meeting of the panel Tuesday, when the Senate Republican sponsor of the conscience clause said his GOP colleagues would never accept a bill forcing entities owned by religious groups, such as Catholic nursing homes, to offer the contraceptive coverage for its workers.

"I wanted a law without a conscience clause," said Sen. John Bonacic, an Ulster County Republican. But, he quickly added, "It's not going to happen."

The clause is part of a larger women's health care package that expands insurance coverage for procedures such as mammograms, pap smears and osteoporosis screening. The bill, now sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, would also require insurers to cover birth control drugs and devices for women. But the Senate version, unlike the Assembly bill, gives employers owned by religious entities the right to opt out of the contraceptive-mandated coverage.

Critics say the conscience clause is too broad, and would deny access to birth control those women who work for large employers, such as hospitals, universities and nursing homes, that happen to be owned by, for instance, the Catholic Church.

The state Catholic Conference, however, says it should not be forced to provide health insurance that includes coverage for birth control devices that it morally opposes.

It has become such a priority for the Catholic Church that newly promoted Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of the New York Archdiocese, will be in Albany on Monday to lobby political leaders in a bid to ensure that the conscience clause remains in the final bill.

Rath, who said she favors the conscience clause, insists the matter will be resolved, though the only aspect she and Assembly Democrats agreed on Tuesday was to seek an extension to the March 9 deadline imposed on the panel by legislative leaders to come to agreement on the controversy.

The bill's sponsor in the Assembly, Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat, said the Senate conscience clause would set a dangerous precedent for future laws in New York. She said objections to this bill could someday be used to stop some New Yorkers from other treatments the church may oppose, such as gene therapy.

Bonacic said the conscience clause would affect what he characterized as only about 3 percent of the state's women with health insurance, a figure Assembly Democrats questioned.

But Bonacic said Democrats should look at the larger measure being accomplished by the bill: the expansion of such things as breast cancer screenings for all women, unless they work for a company that is self-insured and therefore does not have to abide by certain mandated coverage. "If this is going to become law, we're going to have to have a conscience clause," he said.

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