By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Democrats loaded the campaign cannons Wednesday and blasted away at Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker for comments he made about the Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision on companies denying employee coverage of contraception on the basis of religious objections.
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Juliette Kayyem, U.S. Congresswoman Katherine Clark, and state Sen. Benjamin Downing held a press conference call, saying Baker is "out of step" with women in Massachusetts and saying he said the Hobby Lobby case "doesn't matter." Baker said the decision would not impact Massachusetts because a state mandate on contraception coverage was still intact.
Clark said during the call that the Hobby Lobby decision "absolutely matters in Massachusetts."
"The women of Massachusetts need to be able to trust their next governor is going to understand how these issues impact their lives," Clark said.
>>> For video of Baker's full comments to reporters on Wednesday, SHNS subscribers can go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-07-09baker/
For a YouTube clip of Baker addressing Hobby Lobby, go to: http://youtu.be/X59BeJ57HwU <<<
Kayyem said Baker was not "technically accurate" about the decision not impacting women in Massachusetts because they would be protected by state health care laws. Women who work for self-insured companies could be affected if their companies seek an exemption like Hobby Lobby, Democrats said.
With the ruling only a week ago, it is too soon to know if corporations in Massachusetts will seek the exemption, Kayyem said. "We are only a week out, so what is going to happen, we don't know," she said.
In the Hobby Lobby case, the high court ruled that certain narrowly defined businesses could be exempt from employee coverage of certain forms of contraception for religious reasons.
Since 2002, Massachusetts has mandated insurance plans cover contraception, unless the employer is a church or qualified church-controlled organization. The mandate does not apply to employers who self-insure. They are exempt from state mandates but subject to federal regulations.
Under the federal Affordable Care Act, self-insuring companies are required to provide contraception coverage. The Supreme Court decision did not affect state coverage mandates, only federal mandates.
Kayyem said anyone running for governor needs to anticipate that the Hobby Lobby decision is not the end of it. "The governor needs to anticipate what they will do," she said.
"He wants to be governor, whether he is a Democrat or Republican, your opinion does matter about cases that affect citizens of Massachusetts," Kayyem said.
Baker on Wednesday walked back his comments saying he misspoke when he said employers in Massachusetts, and women who work for them, would not be impacted by the decision.
"I have always, and will as Governor, support women's right to access comprehensive health care and I am glad that Massachusetts has for more than a decade required insurers to provide contraceptive coverage," Baker said in a statement. "This issue is immensely important to me which is why I am deeply concerned that my statement yesterday may have led some to believe otherwise. I will strive to make my lifelong commitment to women's health crystal clear."
Baker said it is true some employers who self-insure have been exempt from the state's mandate, and are subject to contraceptive mandates under the ACA.
"I misspoke yesterday because it is possible, given the Hobby Lobby decision, that a small segment of employers could qualify for the narrow exemption to the mandate that the Supreme Court deemed permissible," Baker said. "As Governor, I will work to ensure that Massachusetts employers continue to offer comprehensive health insurance coverage, including contraception, to their employees."
If elected, Baker said his administration would make contraceptive coverage available to any woman who could not access it through her employer through the Department of Public Health.
"I also hope Governor Patrick and our lawmakers act quickly to close this gap so that no woman can be denied coverage," he said.
While visiting the State House Tuesday to push for legislation lifting the enrollment cap on charter schools, Baker was asked by reporters about the Hobby Lobby decision.
Baker said "The good news is Massachusetts won't be affected by the Hobby Lobby decision because Hobby Lobby doesn't change any of the state laws we have here, which I think is great."
Baker declined to give his opinion more broadly, saying "It doesn't matter. What I care about is Massachusetts, and for Massachusetts it doesn't change a thing," he said, arguing that the employer mandate in Massachusetts works.
A deluge of press releases denouncing Baker for the comment circulated Wednesday morning. Democratic gubernatorial rivals Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman, and Don Berwick all sent out releases slamming Baker, as did Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts.
Coakley said in a statement, "Charlie Baker's attitude that failing to provide contraceptive coverage doesn't matter, proves that he is out of touch with the issues that affect voters, most especially women voters."
"If any woman is unable to access reproductive care because of her employer, it matters. It impacts a woman's health, as well as economic security," Coakley said. "The careless attitude toward this issue displayed by Charlie Baker is just wrong, and shows a deep misunderstanding of the impact of this issue in Massachusetts and around the country."
Don Berwick said, "Charlie Baker's assertion that the Hobby Lobby ruling 'doesn't matter' shows that he completely misunderstands the seriousness of this and other recent attacks on women's health. Like his Republican colleagues in Washington, Charlie seems willing to sacrifice the health and safety of women and their families for political gain. Shame on Charlie Baker. Massachusetts deserves much better."
Grossman said Baker owes women across the country an apology. "It's profoundly disturbing to see a candidate, a former health care official and insurance CEO no less, so deeply out of touch with the reproductive health care challenges women across America face today. Decisions about reproductive health care ought to be made between a patient and her physician, free from political interference. It's a sad day for our country when we find ourselves still debating the right of all women, regardless of who they work for, to have access to affordable birth control in the 21st century."
Downing, a Democrat from Pittsfield, pointed out that Hobby Lobby has two stores in Massachusetts, in Holyoke and Seekonk.
"I think it does have real impact, and we will see the broader impact moving forward," Downing said.