This article was also published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
BOSTON – Ellen Duffer, 25, experiences debilitating migraines that accompany her menstrual cycle. Every month, she finds herself lying on the bathroom floor for hours, waiting for the pain to subside.
“It feels like someone has stabbed you with a knife, and like someone at the same time is kicking you in the head over and over and over again,” she said.
Duffer began taking birth control to manage her migraines. Under the Affordable Care Act, she was able to receive her prescription without a copay, which she said saved her $400 a month. Now, she worries that changes in Washington will force her to choose between getting birth control or putting the money toward her student loans.
With federal attempts to repeal the ACA underway, state Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, stood with advocacy groups and health insurers this week in support of a bill to protect free birth control coverage statewide.
“This bill ensures that no changes at the federal level impact the ability of women in Massachusetts to access contraception,” Mrs. Chandler said during her Statehouse testimony.
In addition to her bill to continue free birth control coverage, the senator has sponsored a bill to repeal laws that became outdated with the legalization of abortion, including a provision that limits physicians from giving drugs to prevent conception to unmarried people.
Mrs. Chandler has also proposed legislation to provide in-state tuition to anyone who has completed three years of high school, including to immigrants who are in this country illegally. The bill is intended to safeguard students who were once protected by federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
All of Chandler’s bills would safeguard Obama-era actions, even if these programs were revoked on Capitol Hill.
“We’re all afraid,” Mrs. Chandler said. “All of them are defense postures we’re being put into because the (presidential) administration is showing that we better prepare for the worst.”
Sen. Chandler first filed the bills in January, before President Trump was sworn into office. She said the measures were precautionary – at the time she and her colleagues did not know which programs the president would repeal.
“We needed a Plan B just in case, and all three were our Plan B,” she said.
Massachusetts’ House of Representatives has also responded to changes at the national level, assembling a federal response working group often referred to as the “Trump Working Group.” Democratic Rep. Kate Hogan, a member of the group from Stow, said that the far-reaching changes on the federal level have been proposed often with little formal evaluation of the impact.
“I think it is only prudent that we at the state level are standing ready to assess and respond, where necessary, to safeguard the interests of the commonwealth and its people,” Ms. Hogan said in a written statement.
The birth control access bill is the first of Mrs. Chandler’s proposals to have a public hearing. The coalition of supporters includes members of the insurance industry that came out in opposition to earlier versions of the bill.
Laura Pellegrini of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, an organization that represents 17 different health care plans, said that discussions between insurers and advocates revealed common goals, allowing for compromise.
“We live every day with the threats of the Affordable Care Act being repealed,” Ms. Pellegrini said. “So it is important that Massachusetts pass this bills so that if the ACA is repealed there are states involved.”
In addition to continued coverage for all federal Food and Drug Administration-approved methods of birth control, the bill would allow women to access emergency contraception without a copay or new prescription. Doctors would also be able to prescribe up to 12 months of contraception at a time, instead of giving packets every one or three months.
A study commissioned by Planned Parenthood, showed that 55 percent of women between ages 18 and 34 struggled to afford birth control.
Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president of the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, has been a family doctor for over 20 years. Before the ACA, she counseled women who cut birth control pills in half and delayed their refills because of the high copays on their prescriptions. After the 2016 presidential election, Childs-Roshak saw Planned Parenthood centers flooded with requests for intrauterine devices, a longer lasting form of birth control.
“People were and are scared that their access to affordable birth control (will be) taken away,” said the doctor.
Advocates, including Carol Rose from the ACLU of Massachusetts, point to President Trump’s plan to allow employers to opt out of providing free birth control coverage for religious and moral reasons – a movement that Rose calls “unconscionable.”
“A war on women and their families is happening in our country,” Ms. Rose said. “We have the opportunity to make Massachusetts a leader, a beacon if you would in … women’s rights.”
While the bill offers exemption for churches, the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts called the proposal “an assault on consciences and pocketbooks of Catholics.” Executive Director C.J. Doyle, said he believes the bill would not exempt Catholic hospitals, schools and other employers.
“The religious exemption, which is narrow and nominal, is mere tokenism,” he said.
Advocates of the women’s health bills say that reproductive rights are not an issue of personal philosophy – they deal with public health.
″(I)t’s crucial that we defend these basic health care rights for women,” said Ellie Adair of the Massachusetts National Organization of Women. “Abortion care (and contraception) are health care.”
Mrs. Chandler said she believes these protections should be codified into law at the state level, making them harder to repeal by President Trump and future administrations, both federally and locally.
“We’re creating legislation from the states because we are able to get consensus here and are trying to get these things into law,” Mrs. Chandler said. “That’s the only safeguard we have is to get these things into law.”