By Brett Edward Stout
While much of the talk about the Blunt-Rubio Amendment to the Senate highway funding bill has been about contraception, the implications of the measure extend beyond women’s healthcare and could have serious consequences for the future of HIV treatment. The Senate voted down the bill 51-48, but it is important to note that all but one Republican senator voted for the Amendment and that proponents have proclaimed this issue is far from over.
The Blunt-Rubio Amendment, as it was written, says that an employer can make decisions about what is covered by medical insurance based on religious beliefs. This amendment would legally allow any employer to deny HIV coverage to their employees on religious grounds. If you account for the official position of most large established religions on homosexuality and sprinkle in statements made by religious voice boxes like Brian Fisher, Tony Perkins, and Jerry Fallwell who have said, “AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality,” you can easily see where this is going. In fact, a PEW poll in 2007 showed that while it is trending down, 23% of people then still viewed HIV/AIDS as a punishment by god for immorality.
Adam Serwer from Mother Jones quotes directly from the bill: “‘A health plan shall not be considered to have failed to provide [Essential Health Benefits or Preventive Services]’if it fails to cover the service or benefit because ‘providing coverage...of such specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan.’” Serwer cites John McCormack from The Weekly Standard as denying the possibility of employers denying HIV/AIDS coverage because, as McCormack says, “That never happened.” However, the fact that coverage denial hasn’t happened is primarily due to the American with Disabilities Act, which the Blunt Amendment would circumvent.
Roy Blunt himself is on the record as saying, “This fight is not over.” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) went on record saying, “A Republican led-Senate might pass this bill. A Republican president like Mitt Romney would definitely sign it.” Romney himself first said he opposed the amendment before reversing that position less than 3 hours later claiming he misunderstood the question.
Proponents of the measure see this as a religious freedom issue. But this is the problem when religion and public policy intermingle. Popularity be damned, the Republican minority in the Senate has a very real chance of soon passing this bill into law. Of the 33 Senate seats up for election this November, 23 are currently held by Democrats. It isn’t hard to imagine both the House and Senate going Red this November.
House Speaker John Boehner has stated “I think it’s important for us to win this issue,” but was vague about actually bringing it up for a vote in the House where it may actually have enough votes for passage. What’s more, while Romney’s gaffe about supporting the Blunt Amendment got the lion’s share of the coverage, all four leading Republican presidential candidates have publicly come out in support of it. The current president seems to see things differently. President’s Tumblr page features a mock permission slip from a woman’s employer to her doctor. This permission slip could easily be rewritten to instead say:
"I have discussed the employee’s HIV treatment options with her, and I verify that her use of these methods (IS/IS NOT) in agreement with my personal beliefs. The employee (DOES/DOES NOT) have my permission to access HIV screenings, anti-retroviral medications, blood work, or any other types of medical therapies. This decision is only valid until the next evaluation of the employee’s HIV treatment plans."