DFLers waded into the raging national contraception debate Tuesday with a call for a new law that would require insurers to cover birth control without co-pays.

More than half the states have similar laws, but the "Contraceptive Equity Act" introduced by Assistant House Minority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, comes at a time of heightened controversy over birth control. Republicans in the Legislature were lining up to oppose the bill before it was officially introduced.

Murphy said the legislation's timing is not a coincidence.

"The gains made by generations of women before us to ensure our independence economically and in private health care matters are under attack," said Murphy, flanked at the news conference by a crowd of women. "And I want, we want, Minnesota women to know that we will not wither under such attacks.

"Instead," she said, "we will fight to protect basic health care, including contraception, so women remain in control over this fundamental decision in their lives."

The bill would exempt health plans that serve religious employers, although those plans would be required to offer contraceptive coverage directly to those employees.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said Minnesota already requires insurers to cover 68 drugs, procedures and conditions, including mandatory coverage for hair transplants.

"We have lost sight of what insurance is supposed to be for," Hann said. "Insurance should be there to cover large [health care] costs that are unanticipated or that are very costly and are maybe beyond the ability of most people to afford. That's what insurance does."

Murphy said that by shouldering the estimated $1,200-a-year cost of birth control, insurance companies would save on the considerable expense of unintended pregnancies. Some 28 states mandate contraceptive coverage, starting with New Hampshire a dozen years ago.

Like "windshield wipers"

Hann said mandating coverage for things like birth control is the equivalent of expecting car insurance companies to pay for new windshield wipers.

At St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul, employee health coverage already covers birth control. Despite the hospital's Catholic roots, it's part of the HealthEast system and uses its health coverage. Mary Arnold, vice president of health and human resources for HealthEast, said the main impact the bill would have on its employees would be to remove the co-payment they currently pay for birth control.

The birth control controversy blew up in January, when the Obama administration issued rules mandating contraceptive coverage. The federal changes exempted only churches and houses of worship, not all religiously affiliated employers. The issue quickly became a political football.

But the new federal regulations won't affect every health plan. Murphy said her bill would cover those Minnesotans who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the federal Affordable Care Act changes.

Jessica Pieklo, a Minnesota mother of two who joined the DFL legislators at their Tuesday news conference, sees contraception as an absolute necessity, not just an option on the health care buffet.

"Contraceptive coverage is not -- contrary to some of the characterization -- women asking for someone else to pay for a lifestyle choice," said Pieklo, who has used contraceptives since high school to treat a medical condition.

"As a working mother, I pay health insurance premiums and I pay taxes. I should have the opportunity to have those dollars go to health care that is relevant to me and important to my family."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049