Virginia Lawmakers Limit Insurers’ Abortion Coverage
RICHMOND, Va. — Lawmakers in Virginia approved an amendment Wednesday that would ban private insurance plans from covering abortions if they participate in a state health care exchange under President Obama’s new health care law.
The amendment, proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell and passed by both the State House and Senate on Wednesday, states that no insurance plan sold as part of the state health care exchange could cover abortion except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life.
It is part of a bill that would take the first step toward setting up such an exchange, which was mandated by the new health care bill, to provide coverage for certain segments of the population, including low-income people. The bill, which passed last month, is an effort to remain compliant with the federal law, despite a suit the state has filed that challenges the law’s constitutionality.
Virginia joins at least seven other states that have passed bans on coverage of abortion in state health care exchanges, a pattern that abortion advocates say threatens to erode abortion coverage. The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization, estimates that more than 80 percent of private insurance plans now provide abortion coverage.
Coverage for low-income women has long been restricted under the 1977 Hyde Amendment, which prohibits certain federal funds from paying for abortion. Some states choose to pay for it themselves.
“This affects a much broader segment of women,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of Naral Pro-Choice Virginia. “What is next?”
State officials argue that the overwhelming majority of people who would potentially take part in the exchange — estimated to be just under a tenth of the population — would be receiving federal subsidies and already are subject to limitations under the Hyde Amendment.
But a smaller contingent of middle- and upper-income earners who receive no federal or state subsidies will also be able to buy private plans in the exchanges, and those people will be limited as well, according to a spokeswoman for the governor. The reason, she said, is that the exchange itself will be paid for with government dollars, an argument that abortion rights advocates reject.
“Since when are we telling people they cannot spend their own money on something private insurance companies offer?” said Mary Margaret Whipple, a Democratic state senator. “This goes farther than we’ve ever gone before.”
Abortion opponents also point out that the federal law spells out that any state may elect to prohibit abortion coverage in plans in state exchanges if it chooses.
Governor McDonnell, an abortion opponent, recently signed a bill that imposes heightened requirements on abortion clinics, which abortion rights advocates say would effectively shutter about two-thirds of the clinics in the state.
His support of the anti-abortion measures comes as he is talked about as a potential Republican vice-presidential candidate, and political observers say he could be trying to burnish his image among conservatives.
“He has gotten a reputation for being too nice a guy, too moderate,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “This allows him to re-assert his social conservative credentials.”