WASHINGTON — It’s an issue lawmakers may not want to have to explain at town hall meetings back home:
An attempt to fix a problem with the new health care law has created a situation in which members of Congress and their staffers could gain access to abortion coverage, something that currently is denied to federal employees who get health insurance through the government’s plan.
Abortion opponents say the Obama administration needs to fix it; abortion rights supporters say the concern is overblown.
The abortion complication is a new headache for the administration as it tries to shoehorn members of Congress and certain staffers into insurance markets coming later this year under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. An amendment by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley — who opposes the health care overhaul and abortion — requires lawmakers and their personal staff to get private coverage through the same markets that uninsured Americans will use.
Last week, the White House Office of Personnel Management said the government would keep paying its share of premiums for lawmakers and affected staffers who must leave the federal employee health care system by Jan. 1. That eased a major anxiety for several thousand staffers accustomed to getting the same benefits as other federal employees.
But the proposed regulation did not explicitly address abortion coverage. Under the health care law, insurance plans in the new markets may cover abortion unless a state passes a law prohibiting them from doing so. Plans offering coverage for abortion, however, may not use federal funds to pay for it and must collect a separate premium from enrollees. Federal tax credits to help the uninsured afford coverage must also be kept apart.
Abortion opponents say the proposal from the personnel office would circumvent a longstanding law that bars the use of taxpayer funds for “administrative expenses in connection with any health plan under the federal employees health benefits program which provides any benefits or coverage for abortions.” Unlike many private corporate plans, federal employee plans only cover abortions in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
“Under this scheme (the government) will be paying the administrative costs,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., author of abortion funding ban for federal employee plans. “It’s a radical deviation and departure from current federal law, and it’s not for all federal employees, but for a subset: Congress. Us.”
Smith is calling on the personnel office to specify that lawmakers and staffers must choose a plan that does not cover abortions. The funding ban even bears his name: It’s known as the Smith amendment.
The personnel office refused to answer questions about the issue on the record. Instead, its media office released a generic statement, saying: “Federal law prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in the case of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is endangered. All plans available in the marketplaces will comply with the law.”
Obama, who supports abortion rights, previously has said he does not want his health care overhaul to change existing laws on abortion.