JEFFERSON CITY • Gov. Jay Nixon found a narrow reason Thursday to veto a bill that would have put Missouri law in direct conflict with the new federal mandate for health insurance coverage of contraceptives.
Rather than engage in the national debate over religious liberty and birth control policy, Nixon vetoed the bill because he said it shifted too much power to insurance companies.
The bill would have allowed Missouri employers and insurers to decide not to provide coverage for abortion, contraception or sterilization if such procedures ran contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Nixon said Missouri law already provides protection for employers and employees who object to paying for contraceptive coverage. Those safeguards would have been weakened if insurers could call the shots, he said.
"We want families making these decisions — not insurance companies," Nixon said at a news conference in his Capitol office.
His move, a politically sensitive one for the Democratic governor seeking re-election this fall, sets up a confrontation with the Republican-led Legislature. The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, said he would seek to override the veto in September.
Lamping called the governor's reasoning for his veto "a made-up argument. I think he's just trying to thread the political needle."
The bill was one of several the Legislature has advanced to trigger a showdown with the federal government over the Affordable Care Act, which requires that health insurance plans cover the cost of birth control.
The bill's supporters said the state needs to step in to stop what they call the federal government's assault on religious liberty.
Nixon's veto is "a profound missed opportunity to assert conscience rights for Missouri citizens when those rights are in jeopardy from the federal" mandate, the Archdiocese of St. Louis said in a statement.
The archdiocese has joined Catholic organizations across the country in filing lawsuits that contend the federal birth control insurance mandate is unconstitutional under the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom.
Nixon received thousands of emails urging him to either sign or veto the bill.
The bill's opponents, which included Planned Parenthood and the Missouri AFL-CIO, said it would limit access to health care and put women's health care in the hands of their employers.
"Legislators, employers and insurers should not be making decisions for the women and families of Missouri," said Mary Kogut, vice president of patient services at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.
The insurance industry largely stayed on the sidelines of the debate.
"Our company and others didn't want to get into a fight that is emotionally driven," said David Smith, who lobbies for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Missouri. "We just want to know whether we're going to be under state law or federal law."
Cheryl Dillard, a retired insurance executive in Kansas City, said the bill would have put insurers in a difficult situation. Nixon's office offered her name to reporters.
"Either carriers would be breaking the federal law, or they would be breaking state law," she said. "The governor's veto is a good thing for Missouri's insurance carriers and employers."
Nixon said in his veto message that nothing in the bill would have enhanced the state's 'substantive religious protections that have been in place and afforded to employees and employers" for years under Missouri law.
Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, said that was inaccurate because the bill would have required insurers to issue policies that exclude contraception or abortion when an employer requested it. Under current law, the insurer can tell the employer to find a different insurer, Hoey said.
Hoey echoed Lamping's position that Nixon's reasoning was "bogus." Nixon based his veto on a "theoretical interpretation" of how insurers would act, Hoey said.
Lamping said he believes he would have enough votes to override the veto when the Legislature meets for its annual veto session in September.
It passed in May on votes of 105-33 in the House and 28-6 in the Senate. An override would require 109 votes in the House and 23 votes in the Senate.
"No one else in the entire Capitol ever had an objection" that insurers would thwart an employer's desires to include or exclude coverage for services such as contraception and abortion, Lamping said.
While his bill would put Missouri in conflict with federal policy, "I'd rather be in keeping with the federal Constitution than an administrative rule," Lamping said.
Republicans immediately used the veto to link Nixon to the federal health care act, which Missourians disapproved of in a 2010 referendum.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said in a statement, "Governor Nixon's veto bows down to the Obama agenda and completely ignores the will of Missourians that was made clear in 2010 by an overwhelming 71 percent of voters."
Nixon has tried to distance himself from the unpopular federal health care law. He continued that stance on Thursday, skirting reporters' questions about whether he supports expanding Medicaid to include thousands of working-age adults in Missouri, as the federal law allows.
"I'm going to work with the Legislature and everyone around the table to find the best fit for our state," Nixon said.
While some Democratic lawmakers would like to see him tackle the issue head-on, many were happy to learn of the veto of the contraception bill.
"That's fantastic," said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City. "He's right-on."
She didn't mind that the governor ditched the law on a technicality instead of citing access to birth control.
"Whatever his reasoning is, I'm just glad that he vetoed it."
The bill is SB749.