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California orders HMOs to cover 'morning-after' pill

SACRAMENTO, California (CNN) -- California Gov. Gray Davis on Wednesday ordered California health maintenance organizations to cover emergency "morning-after" contraception for women, saying it strengthens women's family planning rights.

"A woman's right to choose must never be held up by red tape," Davis said in announcing the move.

Davis said he was instructing the state's HMO regulator, the Department of Managed Health Care, to inform all HMOs in the state about the new directive.

The order requires HMOs to cover the costs for emergency contraception through participating pharmacists within the HMO network or, in emergency situations, from pharmacists that don't have a contract with the woman's HMO.

In 1999, Davis signed a law requiring HMOs to cover FDA-approved contraceptive measures. Last year, he signed a law allowing pharmacists to provide emergency contraception.

A statement from Davis' office said many California HMOs are already providing reimbursement for emergency contraception.

Morning-after contraception is not the same as RU-486, the French-developed "abortion pill," which offers women a medical abortion without the need for surgery.

Emergency contraception prevents a fertilized egg from implanting itself into the uterine wall in the first place, and will not interrupt or harm an already established pregnancy.

There are two types of emergency contraception pills, both of which must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse to be effective. The pills are more effective the earlier they are taken within that period, according to health experts.

The first type, Preven, is packaged especially for emergency-contraceptive use. It contains both estrogen and progestin and reduces the chance of pregnancy by 75 percent. The second type, called Plan B, is progestin-only and has been on the market since July of 1999. It is more effective than Preven and has fewer side effects associated with it.

Davis' announcement comes as the November governor's race has started to heat up. Davis, a Democrat, is battling Republican businessman Bill Simon, who opposes abortion.

Simon spokesman Jeff Flint said the governor's decision was an "issue dealing with contraception, not abortion." But he added that Simon's health health care plan, which is to be unveiled next week, would "transcend issues of whether the government needs to be mandating particular" health benefits.

"The governor is trying to provide and enhance benefits to people, but we believe it's a piecemeal approach," Flint said.

He added, "It's another example of the governor desperately trying to show he has done something, because on the issues of energy, the budget, the economy and education he's done nothing."

Abortion rights groups hailed the new law as a step forward in women's health.

"Women are getting their health needs met," said Beth Cope, executive director of the Georgia chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, which is working to get emergency room access to emergency contraception for rape victims in Georgia.

"The need for emergency contraception can also bring women and young women -- young women in particular -- into family planning centers, where they can receive other services and counseling," Cope said. "We see that as an advancement in women's health."

But Troy Newman, a spokesman for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, called the move a "crass attempt to garner the pro-abortion vote in the upcoming election."

On a wider level, Newman said the order shows the nation is "moving ever forward to a forced abortion policy." He said HMOs would gladly go along with the order because "it's always cheaper to kill the baby than it is to bring it to full term."




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