This afternoon, State Senator Steve Hobbs (D-44) announced his intention to once again sponsor legislation that would require insurance carriers operating in Washington to cover the cost of abortions if they also covered maternity care. This is the second year Hobbs has sponsored the Reproductive Parity Act.
While last year the Senate reportedly had the votes to pass the measure, the RPA died a quiet death on the Senate floor in the final hours of the last day of the state legislative session, thanks to a Republican coup. At the time, the bill's death was sad but not tragic. After all, every insurance carrier in Washington State (and nearly every plan) currently covers abortion, according to Planned Parenthood. The bill was drafted to ensure that insurance companies would continue to do so when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is fully implemented in 2014 and more insurance options flood our local market.
Which means, as Senator Hobbs and a host of women's health advocates telegraphed today, the urgency to pass the Reproductive Parity Act in Olympia in 2013 is very real.
"To guarantee that abortion coverage stays a benefit, we need to pass the Reproductive Parity Act in 2013," explains NARAL lobbyist Melanie Smith. In light of the ACA, many other states have banned insurance from covering abortion. Smith explains that because many insurance carriers are nationwide, there is a very real risk that national insurance carriers will simply drop abortion coverage from their packages in order to appease these states. "As more states change their regulations to ban abortion, it could impact our markets," she says.
Hobbs highlights another risk: "As insurance companies try to adjust to make more profit and meet their bottom line, we don’t want to see insurance companies remove coverage for women," he says. "If we don't address this critical problem, access to reproductive healthcare services will be limited depending on income, and that is the exact opposite of what health care reform is supposed to be about. By passing this law, we’re putting them on notice: All women should have access to reproductive healthcare."
This year's measure is virtually identical to last year's, with three small exceptions:
1) The effective date was pushed back to Jan 1, 2014.
2) The bill was tweaked to clarify that the RPA would in no way impinge on the state's conscience clause, which only applies to religiously-based insurance carriers (there are currently no religious-based carriers in Washington but there may be in the future).
3) It was also rewritten to tip-toe around the Weldon Amendment (AKA conscience clause), which prohibits state governments from discriminating against healthcare entities because they don't offer abortion services, or provide coverage or referral for abortions. Basically, if an issue arises where the RCA must be rendered harmless for religious insurance carriers in order to protect the state's federal funding, the bill reiterates that it would still apply to all non-religious insurance carriers.
"This addresses a major social issue," Hobbs said of the bill, while addressing the likelihood that the war-torn Senate can actually pass the measure this year. "For whatever reason, some Senators felt last year, we passed marriage equality and that was enough. 'Why do we need to pass this?' they asked. But we have a good opportunity to pass this year. We have [state Senator Steve] Litzow (R-41) on board supporting this. I think, if I were a Republican, my thought would be, 'let's get this off the plate.'"
But with Republicans controlling the state Senate this year, whether the RPA is even on their plate remains to be seen.