Washington Outlook/Congress/White House

Health Reform 'Fix It' Threatens Abortion Care

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

As Democrats work to merge House and Senate health care bills this week, women's advocates expect further repairs will be needed on whatever law is finally passed. Three problem areas: abortion coverage, age discrimination, high costs.

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Health Care Finish Reform Right Rally ProgressOhio's photostream on Flickr Creative Commons(WOMENSENEWS)--"Fix it" measures that might emerge this week from congressional Democrats working to join the House and Senate bills on health reform worry Sara Finger.

"It would be a travesty if health care reform resulted in the most significant restrictions on access to abortion coverage in 30 years," said Finger, chair of the Madison-based Wisconsin Alliance of Women's Health, an independent network of organizations in the state.

Bracing for the possibility that a reform bill will spread to most women the same kind of abortion coverage restrictions that have faced low-income women under Medicaid since 1976, Finger predicts that women's groups will continue their advocacy efforts on their various concerns--abortion coverage, age discrimination and coverage for low-income women--after Congress finishes voting this month.

"The race for bringing about affordable comprehensive coverage for women is a marathon, not a sprint," she said. "The lap at the federal level is done and now we move on to the states."

Anne S. Kasper, chair of the Maryland Women's Coalition for Health Reform in Bethesda, also expects unfinished business to be left this month. She sees the Senate bill as a "good starting place in reforming a failing health system."

Kasper says the bill eliminates gender ratings that force women to pay up to 40 percent more for the same coverage as men.

"It also prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes, as well as previous Caesarean sections and even domestic abuse," she said.

Reconciliation Politics

Because no Republicans in Congress support the Democrats' plan for overhaul of health care, Democrats are planning to pass the final bill with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes usually required to pass major bills in the Senate.

But first the House and Senate must merge the bills to prepare it for a full vote by Congress.

Under a so-called reconciliation process, the House is expected to first approve the Senate's version in a vote that is expected this weekend. Then Democrats in both chambers will pass another bill that "fixes" the provisions that the House objected to in the Senate bill and President Obama would sign that bill into law.

The health reform bill, which has been stuck in Congress for nearly a year, is expected to come up for a final vote by March 24.

Pro-choice groups, including the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Wisconsin Alliance of Women's Health, are adamant that the restrictions on abortion coverage in the Senate bill be eliminated in the "fix-it" bill.

The major restriction in the Senate bill is a requirement lobbied for by Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson that says no federal subsidies can be used to help fund abortion services. Such funding must only be derived from premiums paid to private plans. Pro-choice advocates fear this administrative requirement will be so burdensome that insurers that currently provide abortion services as part of reproductive health care--now in the majority--will stop doing so.

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