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House lawmakers aim to provide free birth control for female veterans

Women who deploy overseas may continue to face obstacles in an area that can have a critical impact on their military experience: contraception.

KIRK MCKOY, LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 11, 2019

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers considered legislation Wednesday that would eliminate copayments for female veterans when they receive their birth control through the Department of Veterans Affairs — extending them the same benefit available to most women through public and private insurers.

The Equal Access to Contraception for Veterans Act would do away with copayments for birth control, saving female veterans a total of $400,000 each year, according to VA estimates. It was introduced by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., the leader of the new Women Veterans Task Force.

“Women veterans now make up the fastest-growing group of veterans enrolling in VA health care. Yet, many of their health needs go unaddressed in a VA system that has not evolved to equitably serve a changing population,” Brownley said when she introduced the bill in July. “This includes accessing basic contraceptive services without a copay, which is available to all women using civilian health insurance.”

The bill was one of 12 under consideration Wednesday during a hearing of the subcommittee on health, part of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Most of the bills addressed health care disparities for women veterans.

Teresa Boyd, an assistant deputy undersecretary at the VA, said the agency supported the legislation, but stipulated that Congress must appropriate enough money to cover the cost.

“We believe this bill would help further improve the access of contraceptives to veterans, particularly those who have lower incomes,” she said.

The VA estimated it would lose $396,000 in fiscal year 2020 if it eliminated copayments on birth control. That loss would amount to an estimated $414,000 in 2021 and would total $2.07 million in the next five years.

Other bills considered Wednesday aim to improve health care for newborns at VA facilities, to improve benefits for veterans who experienced domestic violence or sexual assault and to provide $20 million to the VA to retrofit its medical facilities with women’s health services, among others.

Wednesday marked the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Brownley called attention during the hearing to the women who volunteered for the military following the tragedy and urged Congress to provide women who’ve returned from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq with “the same access to timely, high quality health care as their male counterparts.”

Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, criticized Democrats for setting Wednesday’s hearing agenda with no input from Republicans.

“By failing to provide the minority the opportunity to provide input … it runs somewhat counter to the past practices of this subcommittee,” he said. “VA and its subcommittees have uniquely been bipartisan, and I sincerely hope we continue to conduct it that way.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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