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EXCLUSIVE: Abortion Fight Threatens Health Care Reform

Friday, March 25, 2011


A major health care reform bill that could bring millions in federal funds to Rhode Island could be derailed by abortion foes who are outraged that it could lead to taxpayer-funded abortions, according to sources familiar with the legislation.

“The powder keg that has reared its head in the past week is the abortion issue,” a source in the health insurance industry told GoLocalProv.

The bill sets up a health insurance exchange—an online portal where individuals and small businesses could buy health insurance plans that are subsidized by the federal government. Sources familiar with the legislation say it was written in the vaguest of terms to ensure quick passage and hasten the arrival of federal funding.

‘It would be an outrage’

The legislation is silent about abortion—and the federal health care reform bill leaves it up to the states to decide how to deal with abortion. If the legislation passes in its current form, it would not mandate taxpayer-funded abortions, but wouldn’t prevent them either, according to a source familiar with the bills. (Click here to read the Senate bill and here for the House bill.)

But pro-life leaders are urging state lawmakers to amend the bill so that abortion could not be covered under any of the insurance plans offered through the exchange. Otherwise, the bill could lead to the reversal of a decades-old state law banning public funding for abortions, according to Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life.

“Rhode Island taxpayers would be paying for abortion on demand. Period,” Bracy told GoLocalProv. “I think it would be an outrage if the state law is changed. That is a radical shift.”

Senate President under pressure from conservatives

The controversy—which has largely been brewing under the radar—puts Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed between a rock and a hard place.

Passing the bill, which she sponsored, is one of her top legislative priorities this session, according to spokesman Greg Pare. But Paiva Weed also is pro-life. So are two other prominent co-sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and Minority Leader Dennis Algiere. All three senators were endorsed by Rhode Island Right to Life in the last election.

Paiva Weed is under added pressure to deliver to her social conservative base after suffering a political setback on her home turf, according to the source in the health insurance industry. He noted that the Newport Democratic City Committee recently came out in support of gay marriage—which Paiva Weed opposes.

The source said pro-life advocates made a direct appeal to Paiva Weed in a meeting earlier this week. Neither Bracy nor Pare would confirm the meeting. 

A spokeswoman for Algiere also did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate bill was introduced in January and is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee March 30. The House bill was introduced earlier this month and has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

Health reform, millions of dollars at stake

A lot is on the line for Rhode Island. The so-called health care exchanges are part of the national health care reform bill, which passed in 2010. Paiva Weed has previously described the exchanges as the “centerpiece” of health care reform.

“This is the centerpiece of our health care reform implementation,” Paiva Weed said when she introduced the bill. “The exchange will create a health benefit marketplace that is fair, competitive, transparent and understandable to individuals and small businesses. It will also have the important job of getting federal subsidies to the people who need them.”

Failure to create an exchange in Rhode Island would mean that Ocean State residents who need a federal subsidy for health insurance would have to use a national exchange, where there are significantly higher up-front costs for anyone buying insurance.

In the short term, tens of millions of dollars is at stake too. Last fall, the state received $1 million in federal funds for planning the exchange. Next week, the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner will apply for approximately $5 million more that would be used to help set it up. But Rhode Island won’t have a shot at most of the federal funding it needs until it first passes a law creating. The funding would last through 2014, helping the state to open the exchange.

The proposed law does the bare minimum required in order to be eligible for the funds, according to Pare. If passed, it would establish the exchange as a quais-public corporation run by an 11-member board of directors.

It would be up to the board to hash out most of the controversial public policy decisions—such as what kinds of health insurance plans would be offered through the exchange, how small businesses would be included, and whether abortion procedures would be covered. After spending the next year debating those issues, the board would propose a follow-up law in the next legislative session.

But Bracy isn't willing to wait. For one thing, he says Rhode Island pro-lifers aren't asking for much—nothing as aggressive as the famous Stupak Amendment to the federal health care reform bill.

“If the Stupak Amendment is Arnold Schwarzenegger, then what we’re looking for is Pee-wee Herman,” Bracy said. “It’s so emasculated that what we’re looking for is pathetic.”

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