Viagra is sign of double standard Why can't women get insurance coverage for their pill like the men?


Viagra got the front page and the magazine covers, Larry King and Letterman. And, oh yes, insurance coverage.

The "pill bill" still hasn't gotten a hearing.

For more than a year, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, has been waiting for the Labor and Human Resources Committee to schedule hearings on her proposal, which would require insurance plans that cover prescription drugs to cover birth control pills and other contraceptives like any other medicines. Right now, nearly all big group plans cover prescriptions - except for The Pill.

Across the Capitol, Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat, has no real hope of forcing the issue in the House, even though about a quarter of the House has signed on to co-sponsor the Equity in Prescription and Contraceptive Coverage Act.

The best Lowey can do is try to slip language into an obscure spending bill to require insurers who want to compete in the lucrative market for federal employees' health insurance to cover birth control in their prescription plans. This legislative maneuver has proved a sure - fire winner for anti-abortion lawmakers, who used it to prohibit insurers who serve federal employees from covering abortion.

So Lowey will make a go at it next month, but if she succeeds in committee and expands birth - control coverage, it is pretty certain another lawmaker will try, and succeed, in striking it out on the floor.

Won't make big news

And it's a sure bet that none of this will make big news.

Whatever the media madness over Viagra means (and I will leave NTC that topic for Geraldo), there sure is a big message in the story of two little pills. Men have an inalienable, and insurable, right to their sexual health. Women have an enduring responsibility to take care of these things alone. And quietly, please.

We can talk, long and loud, about the need for aging men to get erections. But until just now, no one has even whispered about the hundreds of dollars a year (about $300, on average) that women shell out for birth control, year after child - bearing year.

The only time the culture - and Congress - is comfortable talking about women and sex is when it decides they must be punished for having it.

It was perfectly easy for members of the House, during the debate on the welfare - overhaul bill, to compare welfare recipients to breeding alligators and to allow states to place a "cap" on the number of children they can feed with their benefit checks.

It even has become acceptable to fool around with foreign policy, just to prevent people in other countries from talking about birth control. The Senate approved payment of back dues the United Nations only with a proviso that bars any family planning group that gets U.S. money from advocating for access to legal abortion abroad (the use of U.S. money to perform abortions already is barred).

A chance

With all the political angst and invective that gets vented about abortion, it sure would make sense to leap at the chance to prevent some of them. This is, of course, what contraception does.

Some congressional opponents of abortion understand this and are co-sponsoring the Snowe bill. They are, however, at odds with others in the anti-abortion movement, which opposes the pill bill because, according to the American Life League, it "ignores the tragic physical, emotional and spiritual side effects of all contraceptives."

More firepower comes from the insurance industry, which opposes mandated coverage. That hasn't stopped Congress from requiring longer hospital stays for childbirth, and it isn't likely to keep lawmakers from voting soon to mandate an end to too - short mastectomy stays.

Of course, women can get breast cancer without having sex, so there is no trouble, finally, in talking about that. We need to grow up and stand up about birth control, too.

Mario Cocco is a columnist for Newsday

! Pub date: 5/24/98

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