Wisconsin Republicans pushing broader birth control access

August 15, 2019

MADISON Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin found themselves in the unusual position Wednesday of breaking with anti-abortion groups and advocating for a bill that broadens birth control access, an area where Democrats typically lead.

Republicans could undermine a key Democratic campaign issue by passing the bill, but they also find themselves in conflict with groups that are typically their allies. Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Family Action, a leading anti-abortion group, oppose the measure on moral and ethical grounds, saying increasing access encourages premarital sex and the odds of unintended pregnancies and abortions.

"I don't understand the push for this legislation," said Wisconsin Family Action President Julaine Appling, testifying before the Assembly health committee. "I don't know where it's coming from. I haven't heard a clarion call from masses of people saying we've got to have more access to contraception."

Only doctors can prescribe hormonal birth control under current state law. The bill would allow pharmacists to prescribe hormonal contraceptive patches and birth control pills, but patients would first have to fill out a self-assessment questionnaire and undergo a blood pressure screening. Pharmacists would be prohibited from giving prescriptions to anyone younger than 18.

Bill sponsor Rep. Joel Kitchens, a Republican, said the measure would reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, because more women would be able to plan their pregnancies if they could get birth control from a pharmacist.

"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue," he said.

Both conservative anti-abortion Republicans and liberal Democrats on the health committee raised concerns.

Democrats questioned why a more expansive proposal they presented in 2015 and again this year wasn't being considered. Republicans raised concerns about giving pharmacists the prescription power and the merits of making it easier to prevent pregnancies that may be unwanted initially, but later accepted.

Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland, speaking before the hearing, said Republicans want to "check off a box around the time they want to get elected" to show they support women. Still, she hoped they would work with Democrats on amendments to broaden access to contraception under the bill, including incorporating a proposal she introduced with bipartisan support that would require insurance companies to cover 12 months' worth of birth control at a time.

Eleven other states have laws allowing pharmacists to prescribe birth control: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.

The laws vary by state, with some limiting the types of contraception allowed to be prescribed by pharmacists or not allowing those under 18 to receive them. And even in states that allow it, not every pharmacy provides the service because of training requirements and other restrictions.

In Wisconsin, the much broader Democratic bill would place no age limits on who could get the prescription, and patients would not have to complete a self-assessment form or go through a blood pressure screening. The bill would make it easier for women to receive a prescription by prohibiting a pharmacist from requiring the patient to schedule an appointment or to provide proof of a clinical visit for women's health within the past three years.

Dr. Michelle Farrell, owner of the Boscobel Pharmacy, said she supports the Republican bill as a way to bridge a gap in health care to make birth control more widely available to women who have trouble getting it now with a doctor's prescription. She asked lawmakers to consider expanding the scope of what can be prescribed.

The Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Nurses Association support the GOP measure.

No Democrats have signed on to the Republican proposal and no Republicans are on the Democratic bill.

To become law, the GOP bill would have to pass the Senate and Assembly, which are both controlled by Republicans, and be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. The governor's spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, had no immediate comment.

In June, Evers vetoed four anti-abortion bills passed by the Legislature. The move came after Republicans held a rally in the Capitol rotunda in an effort to publicize the measures and put pressure on Evers to sign them. He vetoed them the next day.

Evers, Wisconsin Democrats propose gun background check bill

 Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers speaks during a press conference announcing a bill that would expand background checks to most private gun sales in the state at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. Others speakers at the event included Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, left, who delivered remarks about constituents in her district who have been affected by gun violence, and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, center.

MADISON, Wis. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic lawmakers on Thursday proposed an expansion of background checks for gun sales in the state and called on Republicans who control the Legislature to pass the measure, even though GOP leaders have said they don't support such a move.

"It's time to stop waiting for permission from the NRA," said Evers, a Democrat, at a news conference to announce the bill. "Enough is enough, folks. This is a moderate proposal, folks. It's time to be bipartisan and it's time to lead."

Under the bill, the Wisconsin Department of Justice would conduct the background checks on purchases made at gun shows, online, auctions and other sales that aren't covered by the federal law requiring background checks on guns sold through federally licensed dealers.

Sales to a firearm dealer, a law enforcement officer or member of the armed services, firearms classified as antiques or a gift or inheritance to a family member would not be covered.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, said the state Justice Department currently conducts more than 100,000 background checks each year on handgun sales made through federally licensed firearms dealers.

"Their Second Amendment rights were not infringed upon," Kaul said. It makes "no sense" that other sales evade background checks, he said.

"It does not protect Second Amendment rights in any way," Kaul said of the loophole. "It is just bad policy that puts people's safety at risk."

Democrats pointed to a 2018 Marquette University Law School poll showing that more than 80% of respondents support a universal background check. Evers said Republicans oppose the idea "at their own risk at the polls."

"This is not a controversial issue anywhere other than in this Capitol building," said Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent, of Madison, who is sponsoring the bill along with Sen. LaTonya Johnson, of Milwaukee.

Republicans have repeatedly said they have no interest in it.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, hours before the bill was released, said in an interview on WISN-AM that a background check bill and a "red flag" proposal are ineffective and "very unlikely" to be taken up by the Legislature. Red flag laws establish a process to take firearms away from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others.

Vos said the proposals won't get at the real issues, which he said are tied to mental health and dealing with suicidal people.

"There are things we can certainly work together on that would deal with the problem that's real and not just the one that's the political answer," Vos said. "There should be commonsense middle ground."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald this week also said he opposes a universal background check bill. He said it would violate the Constitution's Second Amendment. Fitzgerald declined to comment Thursday.

Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke said the Evers proposal will be reviewed, but he rejected Democrats' claim that expanded background checks would have prevented or significantly reduced the number of mass shootings.

"That's why Assembly Republicans have been and remain committed to providing and expanding mental health resources to those in need which has time and again been a root cause of many of these shootings," Steineke said in a statement.

Evers called on every Republican to take a stand on his proposal, which he called a "reasonable and moderate step" to increase safety. He was joined by 16 Democratic lawmakers, Kaul, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Middleton Police Chief Charles Foulke.

"This is an issue that should transcend political parties," Evers said.

No Republicans sign letter supporting paralyzed Democrat

MADISON No Republicans have signed onto a letter supporting a paralyzed Democratic lawmaker who wants to be able to call into some meetings when he's not able to get there in person.

Rep. Jimmy Anderson, of Fitchburg, released the letter Wednesday that was signed by all 35 of his Democratic colleagues but not a single one of the 63 Republicans.

Anderson sent the letter to Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. He has repeatedly denied Anderson's request for accommodations, including not holding floor sessions overnight and allowing him to call into committee meetings. That is currently barred under Assembly rules.

Vos has accused Anderson of "political grandstanding." Vos has offered to provide Anderson with recordings of hearings he missed, but not let him phone in.


Associated Press