OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — At a time when many states are making it harder for women to get abortions, Washington state appears headed in the opposite direction.
Fifteen states have passed laws restricting insurers from covering abortions and 12 others are considering similar measures. By contrast, a bill that has passed Washington’s House and is working its way through the Senate would make the state the first to require all health insurance plans under its jurisdiction — except those claiming a conscience-based exemption — to include abortion coverage.
The measure, H.B. 2330, would do so by requiring insurers who cover maternity care, which Washingtoninsurers are mandated to provide, to also pay for abortions. New York is the only other state considering similar rules, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks women’s health-related legislation.
Opponents say expanded coverage would lead to more abortions and higher health care costs for all — claims muddied by the already wide availability of abortion in the state and the fact that abortions cost insurers less than do live births. They also say the measure would violate federal rules barring discrimination against insurers that don’t offer abortion coverage for moral reasons, putting at risk $6 billion in federal money.
The bill has “far reaching and alarming consequences” for the “unborn lives of the next generation,” six members of Congress, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., wrote to President Obama in a recent letter.
“The state of Washington, or any state for that matter, that receives federal funds is prohibited from mandating that insurance plans cover abortion,” they wrote.
Supporters say the state is protected by its existing conscience exemptions and note the bill has a self-destruct clause nullifying it in the event it were found to conflict with federal law. They say it would simply ensure that women in Washington — one of four states to have legalized abortion before the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision — continue to have easy access to abortions once the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) is more fully enacted in 2014.
“Washington state has historically been in the forefront for women’s reproductive rights,” said Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, who sponsored the measure. “We’re just trying to maintain the status quo.”
Cody and other abortion-rights advocates say the bill is necessary because of the uncertain status of abortion coverage under PPACA, the implementation of which is a work in progress.
Under PPACA, each state will on Jan. 1, 2014 establish an online marketplace where both individuals and small business owners looking for employee health insurance can compare competing plans. In 2017, these exchanges, as they are known, are slated to expand to the large group plans under which mostinsured Americans are covered.
Plans made available on state exchanges will have to cover a so-called “essential benefits package,” which must include emergency care, hospitalization, prescription drugs, mental health care and maternity care. Initially, the Obama administration was expected to provide states with a definitive list of essential benefits. Instead, it has left this task to the states until at least 2016. States are expected to define their essential benefits by selecting an existing, widely used insurance plan to use as a benchmark.