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Lawmakers Repeal Ban on Abortion Coverage Through State Exchange Plans

The Virginia General Assembly passed two bills that repeal the ban keeping some health insurance plans sold in the state from covering abortions.

House Bill 1896, introduced by Del. Sally L. Hudson, D-Charlottesville, and Senate Bill 1276, introduced by Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, loosen restrictions through Virginia’s health insurance exchange.

The exchange offers health insurance to approximately 270,000 Virginians who are self employed or don’t have access to insurance through employers, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Although the legislation will allow insurers to provide these services, it will not require them to do so.

The current restriction on abortion coverage through Virginia’s health insurance exchange was put in place in 2011 during Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell’s administration after the Affordable Care Act was passed. Federal funds can’t cover abortion costs due to the Hyde Amendment, except for specific circumstances.

“The current ban on providing abortion care for private insurance companies does nothing to promote or protect the health and safety of anyone — it’s purely politically based,” said Rae Pickett, communications director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

“Abortion is the only legal medical procedure that is prohibited by Virginia law from even being offered by private companies that sell plans through an exchange,” McClellan said during the bill’s committee hearing.

Advocates for the bill said banning abortion services through insurance companies disproportionately affects lower-income individuals, and the bill will allow access for more people to get needed care. Pickett said customers can currently choose a plan from the marketplace that fits their needs such as ones that offer different kinds of contraception.

“Abortion should be the same way,” Pickett said.

The federal health insurance marketplace is typically used by low-income people who struggle to afford health care, “particularly women, transgender people, and non-binary people of color,” according to a press release from the Feminist Majority Foundation. The Virginia-based nonprofit organization advocates and organizes for women’s rights, including reproductive rights.

The election of more pro-choice candidates and Democratic seizure of both chambers has led to the introduction and  passage of more progressive legislation. Legislators have pushed for the abortion services rollback for years. The votes on both measures were along party lines.

Opponents of the legislation fear the measures could “grease the wheels” for state funding of abortion. Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, is concerned that a repeal of the Hyde Amendment by the Democratic majority Congress coud lead to state money being used to fund abortions. Turner said Virginians may be supportive of legal abortion, but there is “a great deal of opposition to taxpayer funding of elective abortions.”

Turner said the Virginia Society for Human Life is concerned it could become difficult to find a plan in the market that does not include abortion services. The bill’s passage could lead to more expensive plans for consumers since more services would be covered, Turner said.

 W. Bruce Vogel, an associate professor in the Department of Health Outcomes and Biomedical Informatics at the University of Florida, specializes in health care economics. He expects the law to have limited impact since only a small fraction of health insurance marketplace users have abortions in a year.

 “More worrisome may be whether a low-income pregnant woman can pay the bill out-of-pocket in the absence of insurance coverage,” Vogel said in an email. “Beyond the first-term, abortion costs can rise into the thousands of dollars, and that is big hurdle if you are poor.”

– By Cameron Jones  / Capital News Service

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