JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed legislation Thursday that would have expanded religious and moral exemptions from insurance policies covering birth control, avoiding a potential conflict with a new contraception policy put forth by President Barack Obama's administration.
Nixon said he supports religious and ethical exemptions from contraception coverage that already exist in Missouri law. But he said the new bill could have extended those exemptions to insurance companies, allowing them to deny birth control coverage to women who want it.
"The bill would shift authority to make decisions about access to contraceptive coverage away from Missouri women, families and employers and put that power in the hands of insurance companies," said Nixon, a Democrat. "That would be a step backward for Missouri."
Supporters of the legislation called Nixon's explanation "silly" and "strained" and vowed to try to override his veto when lawmakers return to the Capitol in September. That would take a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and House, meaning some Democratic representatives would have to side with the Republican majority against a governor of their own party shortly before the November election. Some self-described "pro-life" Democrats have been willing to do that in the past.
"I think the governor has just given us our summer assignment. We'll work with the General Assembly to override the veto," said Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference.
The legislation was intended to rebuff an Obama administration policy that requires insurers to cover birth control at no additional cost to women, including those who work at religiously affiliated nonprofits such as hospitals, colleges or charities. Several legal challenges are pending against the policy, claiming it infringes on religious liberties.
Nixon's veto was cheered by Planned Parenthood and some insurance executives, who said the Missouri measure could have forced businesses and insurers to make a difficult decision.
"The legislation puts Missouri insurance carriers and employers in an impossible situation of either violating federal law or violating state law," said Cheryl Dillard, a recently retired executive from Coventry Health Care who testified against the legislation and to whom Nixon's office referred reporters on Thursday.
But Nixon, a former attorney general who has carefully avoided endorsing Obama's health care policies, said he was "not sure" whether the state legislation would have conflicted with the federal policy. He said the veto was based more on the potential change to Missouri law.
"We have strong religious exceptions that are working now," Nixon said.
A 2001 Missouri law states that birth control prescriptions shall be covered under policies that include pharmaceutical benefits at the same co-payment or deductible rates as other medications. That law also allows insurers to offer policies without contraception coverage to people or employers who say it violates their moral or religious beliefs. And the 2001 law ensures that people can purchase a plan with contraception coverage if their employer's plan does not offer it.
Missouri also has a 1983 law that prohibits abortion coverage in basic insurance policies, instead requiring the payment of an additional premium.
The measure vetoed by Nixon would have allowed individuals, employers and insurers to cite religious or moral exemption from mandatory insurance coverage for abortion, contraception and sterilization. It also would have given the state attorney general — or other individuals and entities — grounds to file lawsuits claiming an infringement of rights if they were compelled to cover contraception.
Nixon said in a written statement explaining his veto that by expanding the religious and moral exemption to insurers, the legislation "would signal a retreat from the liberties enjoyed by employers and employees under current law."
Sponsoring Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, called that a "silly," ''concocted" and "phony objection." Most insurance companies would continue to provide coverage for contraception, and if one didn't, a consumer could simply purchase a policy from another company, Lamping said.
House Majority Leader Tim Jones also accused Nixon of twisting the intent of the legislation in order to justify a veto.
"The purpose of the bill is to be used as a shield for the consumer, not a sword for the insurance carrier," said Jones, R-Eureka. "I don't think that argument makes intellectual sense. I think it's just a reason the governor used to cater to his pro-choice base."
In previous years, Nixon has let anti-abortion bills become law without his signature. His veto Thursday came after an intense public lobbying effort in which his office received more than 10,000 messages urging him to either sign or veto the legislation.
Nixon said he doesn't think the veto should be construed as an endorsement of Obama's health care law. He said previously that he opposes a federal requirement for most Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. On Thursday, Nixon carefully avoided saying "yes" or "no" when asked whether he believes Missouri should enact a provision of Obama's health care law expanding Medicaid coverage to adults.