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Abortion amendment upheld by Va. Senate

RICHMOND—On a 20–19 vote, the state Senate on Wednesday upheld an amendment from Gov. Bob McDonnell to bar private insurance plans sold through a federal health coverage exchange from covering abortion.

The House of Delegates also upheld McDonnell’s amendment.

Virginia has declined to set up a state-run health insurance exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act. Instead, Virginia will participate in a federally run insurance marketplace.

McDonnell’s amendment was made to bills that outline other parameters for insurance policies sold to Virginians through the exchange by private insurers.

The amendment says insurance plans sold through the exchange cannot cover abortion services, nor can insurance companies offer separate riders to cover abortion.

As of last October, at least 17 other states had enacted legislation to restrict abortion coverage in the exchanges, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

According to NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, 90 percent of private health insurance plans offer coverage for abortion services.

Supporters said the amendment is similar to one lawmakers approved two years ago for a state-run exchange, and just clarifies that taxpayer dollars—which will help subsidize the cost of buying health insurance through the exchange for some purchasers—won’t go to pay for abortions.

“What this boils down to is taxpayers funding of abortion. We know there are certain costs to this exchange that will be borne by taxpayers,” said Sen. Jeff McWaters, R–Virginia Beach. ““This is not new ground, this is something we’ve all considered.”

Sen. Tom Garrett, R–Louisa, said opponents were making an “intellectually dishonest” argument that the bill barred abortion—it only dictates how taxpayer dollars are used, he said.

Opponents said the amendment was an egregious overstep of government into private business transactions and women’s health care decisions.

“It is blatantly obvious to me that the purpose is to decrease access for women to reproductive health care. I don’t think there is any other purpose to it,” said Sen. Ralph Northam, D–Norfolk, a neurosurgeon. “We’re going to go back to the days before Roe v. Wade. Women back then were getting abortions in unsterile environments, using unsterile instruments, doing back-alley abortions with coat hangers. Virginia does not need to go back there.”

Del. Jennifer McClellan, D–Richmond, and others said the bill affects private business transactions between individuals and private health insurance companies, because not all women who get insurance through the exchange will qualify for government subsidies.

Sen. Barbara Favola said federal law already bars taxpayer dollars from paying for abortions, so the amendment wasn’t needed. She called it “demeaning.”

The sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Sen. John Watkins, R–Powhatan, opposed the amendment.

“The last thing we need is more bureaucrats telling patients what they can do and what they can’t,” he said.

As of last October, at least 17 other states had enacted legislation to restrict abortion coverage in the exchanges, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

According to NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, 90 percent of private health insurance plans offer coverage for abortion services.

The General Assembly was in Richmond for its one-day veto session to deal with McDonnell’s vetoes and amendments to bills.

The House and Senate also approved budget amendments that add more details to a list of conditions that would have to be met before Virginia could expand its Medicaid eligibility.

In the regular session, state lawmakers approved budget language that asks the federal government to allow Virginia more control and flexibility over how it runs Medicaid, in an attempt to control costs.

The budget requires that flexibility to be allowed before a new commission of lawmakers could authorize expanding Medicaid eligibility.

Virginia wants to match its Medicaid benefits more closely to those provided by commercial health insurance providers. The state is looking also at limiting provider networks, like private health insurance coverage does, and combining different Medicaid programs into a single program administration.

McDonnell’s amendments go into more detail. He proposed additional money for five more positions—above five already authorized in the budget—to establish a “data analytics unit” in the state Department of Medical Assistance. That unit will monitor the progress of Medicaid reforms.

McDonnell also wants service limits, provider qualifications and licensing requirements for community behavioral health services, and language to specify that Medicaid coverage can have limits to occupational, physical and speech therapy.

The House of Delegates approved McDonnell’s amendments with little debate. In the Senate, while all those amendments passed easily, there was more discussion.

Sen. Dick Black, R–Loudoun, said the Medicaid amendments are deceptive.

“The people of Virginia have been told that Virginia is not going to buy into the Medicaid expansion… I think they deserve honesty, and I don’t think they have received honesty,” Black said. “We are telling them one thing and at the same time we are laying in place the framework for Medicaid expansion.”

Sen. Walter Stosch, R–Henrico, said the purpose of the amendments is not an automatic expansion of Medicaid, but to set requirements before that could happen.

Even without expansion, said Sen. Emmett Hanger, R–Augusta, the amendments should help make health care more affordable.

“There is no legitimate reason for us not to move forward with the expansion of Medicaid but we first must meet these tests and they are significant,” Hanger said. “But they will also achieve significant costs savings for the commonwealth.”

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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