OLYMPIA - Two bills introduced early in this legislative session would require any health-insurance plan in Washington state that covers maternal care to also cover abortions.
HB 1044 and SB 5009, collectively known as the Reproductive Parity Act, would reinforce existing state law that requires insurance companies to cover abortion except in cases in which the insurance provider is explicitly religious.
Rep. Eileen Cody (D-Seattle), one of the House bill's primary sponsors, claims the legislation would help women maintain their current coverage once state health insurance exchanges open in October 2013.
"The main reason is to ensure that Washington women can continue to make their choices with their family and their doctor," said Cody, speaking for her 41 co-sponsors.
The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) with 22 co-signers.
"It's imperative that we create this protection for women in order to ensure their constitutional right of choice and more importantly, for their health," said Hobbs.
"We have seen in some states an erosion of women's health and choice and what we want to ensure is that there's a firewall against that erosion," he added.
Health-insurance exchanges, which are intended to help individuals and businesses compare and buy insurance policies, are part of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in March 2010. The exchanges would offer subsidized health insurance plans to those who are eligible.
Federal funds, says Cody, cannot by law be used for abortions. Women who buy subsidized health insurance under the new federal health care law would need to pay their insurers separately for abortion coverage, and women's-health advocates such as Cody are unsure how health-insurance companies may react to the increased bureaucracy and overhead from such a requirement.
"As we implement the federal health care reform law," said Cody, "we need to ensure that we have no erosion of our existing laws in Washington that protect women's reproductive rights."
The Reproductive Parity Act, according to supporters, would prevent the need for a separate abortion health-insurance payment that could make access to the procedure more difficult, particularly for low-income women.
Opponents of the bill, such as Joseph Backholm, director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, say the bill is unnecessary at best and at worst forces abortion opponents to pay for coverage they find objectionable.
"It addresses a problem that doesn't exist, in that any woman who wants abortion insurance in Washington can get it," said Backholm
"It denies the rights of individuals," he said, referring to those who object to funding abortions.
Gov. Jay Inslee expressed his support for the Reproductive Parity Act Wednesday afternoon during his inaugural address:
"Washington women need the freedom and privacy to make the health care decisions that are best for themselves and their families. That's why I look forward to the legislature sending the Reproductive Parity Act to my desk, which I will sign," he promised.
Reactions from legislators were sharply divided.
Inslee's fellow Democrats applauded the governor's declaration while Republicans expressed concerns that it may jeopardize federal health-care funding many say the state desperately needs, and that it distracts from more pressing issues such as job creation.
"We have to look at that economic issue as well, not just the emotional issue," said Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville).
An earlier version of the bill passed the state House of Representatives last year but was held up in the Senate.