This Washington

After Today's Hearing, It Remains Unclear If Senators Will Get to Make a Choice on Reproductive Parity Act?


By Carryn Vande Griend April 1, 2013

The Senate Health Care Committee held a hearing on  the house’s Reproductive Parity Act today. The bill requires all insurance carriers that provide maternity care to also include coverage for abortion. Senator Karen Keiser (D-33, Kent) urged committee chair Sen. Randi Becker (R-2, Eatonville) to vote it out of today’s executive session, however the hearing was concluded without a vote after about 50 people—pretty split on the issue—testified. 

Liberals have used the RPA as a symbol all session to make the case that renegade Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina)—who joined with the Republicans this session to form the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus (23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats), and push a fiscally conservative agenda—has simultaneously empowered the GOP to stall his party's social agenda. Tom pledged his coup would not undermine the Democrats on social issues. However, Democratic senate sponsor, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens),  has been unable to move the bill all session.

I have a call in to Sen. Hobbs.

In February, the house bill, sponsored by Rep. Eileen Cody (D-34, West Seattle), passed 53-43. The 25 senate members, including sponsor Sen. Hobbs and cosponsor Sen. Steve Liztow (R-41, Mercer Island), sent a letter urging support of the bill. Tom also signed the letter.

The letter warned that the Affordable Care Act could have a negative impact on access to abortion coverage. The letter, which echoes concerns that pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood outlined for me earlier this session, states, “As we begin to fully implement the Affordable Care Act we must ensure that Washington does not move backwards on access to a full range of reproductive health care options, and that’s why we need HB 1044 to pass this year. Twenty-one states have passed legislation to stop insurance from paying for abortion; in eight states, no one can get a plan that covers the procedure. We must ensure this does not happen in Washington.”

Historically pro-choice, Washington was the first state to legalize abortion by popular vote in 1972 and is the only state considering a mandate of this kind.

The public testimony in favor of the bill today seconded those concerns. “There is no requirement that employers have to provide abortion coverage,” explained Janet Chung, from women's advocacy group, Legal Voice. Another women who testified, Kayla Potts, said that the ACA will make covering abortion more difficult, by separating abortion funding from other funding, creating an uncertainty in the future. “Insurance carriers are businesses and when you make providing abortion coverage more difficult, they’re not going to jump through the hoops,” she said.

But those opposed to the bill are concerned with how RPA mandates those hoops. “The right of conscious opt-out option is a red herring,” said small business owner Eddie Hamilton. “I nor any other citizen should be forced to jump through hoops to not participate in something that they object to.” Similarly, Kate Andersen, a lawyer from Seattle, spoke to what she sees as an unnecessary mandate and flimsy conscious clause. “What this bill would do would mandate employers to provide this coverage when no other states are even considering this kind of a mandate. What concerns me is lack of effective conscious clause.”

The bill’s “conscious-clause” amendment includes that insurers can opt out of covering abortion costs on the basis of conscious or religion, but requires those employers to list services they don't cover up front and tell enrollees where they can obtain “timely access” to those services. "A right to object on consious but a right to timely access to abortion? What we're left with is two contradictory statements," said Peter Sartain, Archbisop of Seattle.

Ultimately, though,  the larger debate—that of whether legislators would get the opportunity to choose 'yea' or 'nay' the RPA—remained unresolved.

The conflicting panel views boiled down to the preeminence of right to conscious or right to access. Rabbi Yohanna Kimberg, from Temple B’Nai Torah, who supported the bill, said “If I work for someone who doesn’t share my beliefs I should still be able to make my own choices.” However, small business owner Jim Mischel spoke to protect “provid[ing] insurance that reflects my religious values.  People who claim to be pro-choice are taking away my choice.”

As the hearing progressed, the discussion verged from the bill’s mechanics into histrionic rhetoric. One opponent tried to link the additional insurance funds for covering abortion to the CEO of Planned Parenthood’s salary, while another equated the bill to Nazi propaganda that encouraged the abortion of poor, sick and unwanted children.

Ultimately, though, the larger debate—that of whether legislators would get the opportunity to choose 'yea' or 'nay' the RPA—remained unresolved.  The bill’s house sponsor Eileen Cody Rep. Eileen Cody (D-34, West Seattle) expressed her frustration. "I certainly hope there's going to be a chance the senate Majority [Coalition] Caucus will bring it up for a vote. The Dems are committed, but there will have to be some sort of maneuvering. Twenty-five senators have signed on […] but it'll sit there until they have a motion to relieve it from committee.”

We  have a call in to health committee chair Sen. Becker.

UPDATE: Becker has issued a statement on the Senate Republicans' Caucus blog saying she will not hold a vote on the bill: 

If our state were to pass this bill, we would be the only one in the nation to require private insurance plans to pay for abortion. Before anyone takes that step, I feel it is only prudent to ensure that the bill is necessary and would not have unintended consequences.

The fact is that at this point, House Bill 1044 is a solution in search of a problem. Even advocates of the bill admit that there is no need for the bill today as every health insurer in the state of Washington provides for abortion coverage. As such, the decision of the committee is that the bill will not move forward from here this year.

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