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Rush Limbaugh: Rudeness aside, did he have a point?

Well, yes and no. In the case Rush Limbaugh raised, taxpayers would not have to pay for a college student's contraception. But in the future, Obama reforms mean taxpayer money could go subsidize insurance plans that include contraception.

Ron Edmonds/AP/File
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, shown here in a file photo, has been denounced for calling a law student a 'slut' after she testified to congressional Democrats in support of their national health-care policy that would compel her college to offer health plans that cover her birth control.

Is Rush Limbaugh right that Sandra Fluke is in favor of taxpayers funding her personal intimate activities?

Most of the uproar over the talk show/provocateur’s Fluke-related comments has focused on his language. He said the Georgetown University law student was a “slut” and a “prostitute,” among other things. But he’s taken that rhetoric back – today he said he wanted to “sincerely apologize” to Fluke for “using those two words to describe her.”

We’re talking about something else here: the substance behind Mr. Limbaugh’s policy critique. 

Limbaugh has consistently implied that the underlying controversy here involves taxpayers being forced to ante up to cover contraception for women.

On March 3, for instance, he posted on his website a statement that said in part: “I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities.... Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit?”

Narrowly speaking, this is incorrect. The issue at hand involves the Obama administration’s attempt to require that employer-provided health insurance provide contraception for women. Asked about Limbaugh on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul framed the disagreement more precisely.

“I, as an OB doctor, certainly endorse the whole idea of birth control,” said Congressman Paul. “But this is something different. This is philosophically and politically important because, does the government have a mandate to tell insurance what to give?”

Under the administration’s original contraception proposal, taxpayers in general would not have paid directly for any woman’s insurance-provided contraception. The cost would have been borne by the other people in the insurance pool in question, in the form of slightly higher premiums for their policies, and by the employer providing the insurance.

In general, this would be a popular move, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. The survey found that 60 percent of Americans support the administration’s attempt to get health plans to provide women with free contraceptives.

However, the situation is complicated by the fact that the White House has now proposed a compromise in which insurance companies will be required provide free contraception, but employers who provide health-care coverage for their workers won’t be required to pay for it.

To the White House, this means that employers with moral objections to contraception won’t have to pay for it themselves. Health-care economists note that the move would simply change contraception from a direct to an indirect insurance cost.

“Insurers will likely just shut up and go along with it. They have no intention of getting into the middle of this political mess – but they will quietly pass the costs along” to others in the insurance pool, writes health-industry consultant Bob Laszewski on his Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review blog.

But is the White House laying the groundwork for taxpayer-funded contraception? That is another question, and the answer to that is almost certainly “yes.”

President Obama’s health-care reforms have greatly increased the government’s power to mandate what’s in many health-insurance packages. Under current law, beginning in 2014, the US will subsidize the purchase of individual insurance for those who can’t afford it on their own. That insurance will have to meet certain standards, set by the government.

That is one reason why those opposed to Mr. Obama’s health reforms in general have reacted so strongly to the contraceptive mandate in particular.

“It’s the first concrete detail we’ve seen about the essential benefits package that is what insurance will have to cover as part of ObamaCare,” said Jennifer Marshall, director for domestic policy studies for the Heritage Foundation, in a video.

So in a larger sense – one that is unrelated to Ms. Fluke – tax dollars may indeed fund contraceptives for women. Whether that constitutes a subsidy for sexual activity, as Limbaugh implies, is another question. 

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