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GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Senate weighing abortion legislation

RICHMOND—Health insurance plans sold through the federal marketplace could offer abortion coverage under a bill passed by a Senate committee Thursday morning.

But while the bill was supported by what is now a majority-Democrat Senate Education and Health Committee, it still faces tough times in the conservative House of Delegates, should it pass the full Senate.

The bill, from Sen. Mamie Locke, D–Hampton, and Sen. Don McEachin, D–Henrico, would repeal a ban on abortion coverage in plans sold through the federal exchange.

The exchange, or marketplace, was created by the Affordable Care Act. People who don’t have insurance through the government or their employer can buy insurance plans there, and receive tax credits to help pay for those plans if they qualify.

The General Assembly passed a law last year barring those exchange plans—which are sold by private insurance companies—from offering coverage of abortion services. Republicans backing that law said they did so because taxpayer money goes to subsidize some of the plans.

The bill passed Thursday morning by the committee would overturn that ban.

“A woman and her doctor should decide what care she needs, not politicians,” Locke told the committee. “People rely on health insurance to be there for unexpected situations. It is wrong to single out a legal procedure a woman might need.”

McEachin said the state doesn’t bar health insurance plans from covering any other procedure.

He said the issue isn’t about tax dollars.

“That’s a ruse,” McEachin said. “This is an ideological attempt to shut off abortions for all women.”

The bill was backed by pro-choice and women’s health groups, as well as a woman from Alexandria who said she has bought insurance through the exchange and is “outraged” that she can’t use her own money to buy insurance that would cover an abortion.

“Please stop interfering with my personal and medical decisions,” she said.

Opponents included the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Family Foundation.

Jessica Cochran, of the Family Foundation, said the law is in place to “protect taxpayers.”

“This bill is about conscience protection,” she said.

Sen. Steve Newman, R–Lynchburg, asked if there was a way to modify the existing ban so that it applied only to exchange plans that receive tax subsidies, but his proposal got no traction.

The committee passed the bill on a party-line vote.

It then also passed a bill from Locke that would repeal the controversial law requiring women who want an abortion to undergo an ultrasound first.

That bill gained Virginia national attention when it was passed in 2012.

The same groups that spoke on the exchange bill supported or opposed the ultrasound bill. Supporters said the ultrasound requirement is an offensive intrusion into women’s private health decisions; opponents said it gives women more information before deciding to have an abortion.

Sen. Steve Newman, R–Lynchburg, proposed an amended version that would have required doctors, if they choose to perform an ultrasound prior to an abortion, to verbally ask the woman if she wants to see the image.

Sen. Steve Martin, R–Chesterfield, said some Democratic senators have supported that in the past.

But those on the committee rejected it, and passed Locke’s bill repealing the ultrasound provision entirely.

“It is nobody’s damn business about that abortion” except a woman and her doctor, said Sen. Dick Saslaw, D–Fairfax. “The state has no business sticking its big nose in … and why we do it just for this issue is beyond me.”

A House of Delegates subcommittee on Wednesday had defeated a similar bill, and isn’t likely to look more favorably on Locke’s bill.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245


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