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Health insurers will have to cover the cost of birth control pills, under a bill that passed the Oregon Senate Wednesday on a 24-5 vote and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

Heath insurers to pay for birth control pills

Health insurers will have to cover the cost of birth control pills, under a bill that passed the Oregon Senate Wednesday on a 24-5 vote and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

The bill changes Oregon law to require insurers to cover birth control as part of their prescription drug plans. Another provision in the legislation requires hospitals to offer emergency contraceptives to women who visit a hospital emergency room after a sexual assault.

“For too long women have been denied health insurance coverage for the cost of birth control,” said State Sen. Kate Brown, D-Portland. “This bill simply provides women with fairness and equity for prescription drug control.”

The proposal could affect roughly 1.4 million Oregonians who are covered by private health insurance. The state-paid Oregon Health Plan already covers prescription contraceptives.

Advocates have lobbied since 1993 to get the birth control legislation passed. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2005 but died in the House.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has said he’d sign the bill into law. It would take effect Jan. 1, 2008.

Five Republicans voted against the bill, including Sen. Roger Beyer, Sen. Gary George, Sen. Larry George, Sen. Jeff Kruse and Sen. Doug Whitsett.

Voters say no to strong mayor

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to create a strong mayor form of government in Portland.

Portland has four commissioners who carry almost as much power as the mayor, with each running at least one city bureau. More than 70 percent of city voters went against a plan that would take power away from commissioners and give it to the next elected mayor.

Mayor Tom Potter ran for office in 2004 promising to streamline city government. He said Tuesday night that he would no longer try to centralize executive authority.

“I’ve done what I said I would do,” Potter told supporters. “The voters have spoken very clearly, and I’m going to live with it.”

Portland is the largest city in the U.S. that still uses the commission form of government.

Bill aims to reduce diesel emissions

Diesel-run school buses, trucks, tug boats and farm equipment could get help from the state to reduce emissions under a bill approved unanimously in the Oregon House on Tuesday.

The bill would provide state grants, loans and tax breaks to retrofit the engines so they emit less pollution.

The goal of the legislation is to reduce diesel emissions in the state by 85 percent and lower the risk of cancer from those emissions from 23 to 1 case per million by 2017, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.

The department estimates that respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations, lost work days, premature deaths and other economic and environmental impacts that result from diesel use cost Oregonians nearly $2 billion a year.

Three and a half million dollars in tax credits per year would be available to clean up diesel exhaust and the resulting particulate matter under the proposal, which according to the Oregon Environmental Council, is widespread in Oregon and exceeds the health benchmarks in 25 countries.

About a quarter of Oregon’s school buses were built before 1994 and today they are some of the dirtiest vehicles on the road. Asthma rates in Oregon are significantly higher than in other parts of the country, according to Department of Human Services, which estimates that nearly 9 percent of children in the state have asthma.

ACLU asks for investigation of Oregon’s abstinence-only program

The American Civil Liberties Union has asked federal and state officials to investigate whether public money has been used for religious purposes in an abstinence-only sex education program based in Oregon.

The group cites a contract signed by the Northern Hills Pregnancy Care Center of Spearfish, S.D., that stipulates that those who present the “Stop and Think” program in schools will “possess an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ” and “attend a Bible believing church or fellowship.”

The Lane Pregnancy Support Center, based in Eugene, has offered its abstinence program to schools in Lane County and made it available through centers in other Oregon cities. Its website lists centers in Massachusetts, Louisiana, Montana and South Dakota as “Stop and Think” locations.

“Both the federal and Oregon constitutions are violated when a direct grant of government dollars funds specifically religious activities,” said Jann Carson, associate director of the ACLU of Oregon, in a letter to the state Department of Human Services. A similar letter went to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Brick Lantz, president of the Lane Pregnancy Support Center’s board, told the Eugene Register-Guard that he is unclear how or why the language was in the South Dakota contract. He said he does not believe that any such requirement is made of presenters in Eugene or elsewhere in Oregon.

Lantz said presenters are specifically prohibited from talking about religion or God in their classroom talks, although students understand the program’s value-based nature “without us mentioning any of those things.”

In its letter to the state, the ACLU said the Eugene center has received $37,500 annually in federal funds administered by the state, through last year, to support the “Stop and Think” program.