Will the Maine Twins Defect on the HHS Mandate?

Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine


On Monday, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine seemingly surrendered to President Obama on the contraception mandate, before the fight had begun.

“It appears that changes have been made that provide women’s health services without compelling Catholic organizations in particular to violate the beliefs and tenets of their faith,” Snowe said.

Collins made a similar statement: “While I will carefully review the details of the president’s revised proposal, it appears to be a step in the right direction.”

But there may be more fight in them yet. Although the senators support forcing insurance companies to cover contraception, they also seem open to an expansive religious-liberty exemption.

Since her early days in the Senate, Snowe has championed a contraception mandate. In May 1997, she introduced the Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. The bill would have required insurance companies that covered prescription drugs and devices to cover contraception as well. (Collins was a co-sponsor.)

Snowe based her case on cost-effectiveness and equity. Testifying before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in July 1998, Snowe argued, “With EPICC, prescription contraceptives will be covered like all prescription drugs, meaning a lot more Americans using birth control and a lot less abortions being performed. Sounds logical, doesn’t it?”

She lamented that “women spend 68 percent more in out-of-pocket health-care cost” because of their purchase of birth control. Moreover, insurance companies’ decision to cover Viagra, but not birth control, seemed unfair. “Why the difference in coverage?” Snowe asked. “It certainly can’t be cost. Even those insurance companies who have reduced their coverage to six pills per month still shell out $60 a month for Viagra, more than half the average cost at $25 for the pill each month.”

Snowe was unsuccessful in her efforts to impose the mandate on private employers. But in July 1999, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment offered by Snowe and Reid that forced insurance plans for federal employees to cover contraceptives.

“The federal government serves as a role model for other employers across the nation and this step sends a signal to insurers nationwide: Prescription-contraceptive coverage is a long-overdue provision for health plans for all women of reproductive age,” Snowe said in a press release.

Snowe kept at the contraception-mandate fight, reintroducing the bill in 2001, 2005, and 2008. As the Portland Press Herald reports, “There was no religious exemption in that bill as written, but Snowe indicated at the time that she would address that issue and a Collins spokesman says that Collins too favored a ‘conscience clause.’”

In 2006, Snowe even filed an amicus curiae brief in support of a class-action lawsuit by a group of female employees who sued their employer for not including contraception coverage in their health plans. “I believe the trial court was correct in ruling that failing to cover contraception under an employer-sponsored health-insurance plan runs afoul of the intent of Congress’s long-standing employment-discrimination laws, and I urge the Court of Appeals to uphold that ruling,” Snowe said.

In other words, Snowe and Collins don’t object to a contraception mandate per se. But in the past few days they have mentioned their qualms over the narrowness of the administration’s religious-liberty exemption.

“Senator Collins said the President’s announcement last week was a step in the right direction but that she wanted more information about its details,” writes her spokesman, Kevin Kelley, in an e-mail. “She has said that a very important issue is how the administration would treat self-insured institutions since there are many Catholic hospitals that are self-insured. She is concerned that she has not been able to get an answer from the administration on this important point.”

For her part, Snowe told the Portland Press Herald, “It shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, maintaining women’s health and religious liberty. . . . We haven’t seen the final language. I would like to look at it. I know there are some differences within the church so if the president can further address those that is always helpful.”

The two senators have signed on to Senator Marco Rubio’s bill, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would carve out a more generous religious-liberty exemption for religiously affiliated institutions.

“They’re well known as being pro-choice,” says Ken Lindell, chairman of the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus. “Everybody within the Republican party and the establishment and conservatives just accept that as something that they are. But this seems to push the envelope a little bit.”

Yes, the senators each have a 45 NARAL score, but they also both voted against Obamacare. Don’t look for them to oppose a contraception mandate, but in the fight for religious liberty, the Maine twins may just stay true.

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.