Policy

Health care interest groups hope makeover will win changes in Ohio sexual health policies

Despite its professed optimism, the Coalition for Family Health looks to be in for a tough fight. Its signature legislation failed to even make it to the floor of either chamber for a vote in two previous attempts, and the proposed law is currently sitting in committees in both chambers, with no guarantees it’ll even get as far as a floor vote.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A collection of usual suspects in areas of reproductive rights and sexual health think their year-old coalition could give them the makeover they need to help pass legislation changing laws on contraception and abstinence-only education.

The Coalition for Family Health is a mix of 37 left-leaning organizations and public health agencies from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice to the Cleveland Department of Public Health and the Lucas County Family Council. A few months ago it published a study on family planning resources in the state and has since focused on its primary goals: Policy wins and reaching lawmakers the groups couldn’t individually.

“When legislators would see us coming, it was more or less: ‘These are the abortion ladies,’ ” said Judi Wolf of the National Council for Jewish Women, which leads the group. “We wanted to get beyond that.”

Organizers decided to establish the Coalition because key members like Planned Parenthood discovered that they were constantly lobbying the same legislators, who were primarily based in Cleveland and Columbus. Making matters worse, other legislators ignored the various groups’ pleas, claiming the groups didn’t represent their constituents, Wolf said.

The Coalition’s wide geographic footprint — with members based in locations like Oxford in Southern Ohio, Galion in the central part of the state and Middletown in Southwest Ohio — in theory makes it harder for legislators to ignore.

The Coalition is “a way to extend our mission beyond just the clinic,” said Katy Maistros, a registered nurse with Cleveland’s two-location Neighborhood Family Practice, which wants to increase access to contraceptives for its “underserved” urban patients.

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The Coalition’s primary focus is to lobby for the Ohio Prevention First Act, which requires insurers to cover U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved prescription contraceptive drugs or devices. The legislation, introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate in October, also calls for changes to the state’s sex education policy to bar abstinence-only curriculum. The Prevention First Act is currently sitting in committee in both chambers.

The proposal would forbid insurance companies from limiting or excluding coverage of FDA-approved contraception that is prescribed by a physician, if the policy pays for other prescription drugs and devices. The legislation also eliminates the central focus on abstinence in state sexual education curriculum and heavily edits the discussion of consequences of sex outside of marriage.

It requires “medically and scientifically accurate” curriculum on topics including AIDS and bars “materials that teach or promote religious doctrine.” The new curriculum could stress the value of abstinence but it wouldn’t be “to the exclusion of other instruction and materials on contraceptive and disease-reduction measures,” according to the bills.

The nation’s recent economic woes may have put another arrow in the Coalition’s quiver: The appeal of cutting costs to Ohio taxpayers. The group’s first white paper asserts that teen pregnancy contributes to a number of “concerning” state trends, including rising poverty, premature births, homelessness, dropout rates and domestic violence.

Access to contraception “is not just a Planned Parenthood issue,” said Gary Dougherty, state legislative director for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Ohio, a member of the Coalition. “That’s why we’ve gotten 37 organizations to join. This is a mainstream issue that affects people throughout the state.”

Despite its professed optimism, the Coalition looks to be in for a tough fight. Its signature legislation failed to even make it to the floor of either chamber for a vote in previous years, and there’s no guarantees this version will get as far as a floor vote, either.

Plus, having a broad collection of members doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for the Coalition to grab legislators’ attention — let alone make inroads to new lawmakers. Cincinnati Rep. Tyrone Yates, who sponsored the Prevention First Act in the House, said last week he had no recollection of the Coalition. That’s despite the fact that Yates is prominently quoted on the group’s Web site as saying he’s “thrilled” that the Coalition supports his proposal. (Yates said he worked “very closely” with Planned Parenthood in shaping the legislation.)

Wolf tempered her optimism about the group’s goals with a  bit of realism. It’s more likely the group will win passage of some provisions of the law. For example, the group has also endorsed two other bills that relate to the Prevention First Act. One would require emergency rooms to make emergency contraception available to victims of sexual assault, while the other would prohibit insurers from charging higher co-pays for contraception than other prescription drugs.

“I would love to see it passed in full, but I’m not naïve enough to believe that we can just work everything out,” she said. “But it’s our primary goal, and we’re not giving up on it.”

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