PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island is now offering health-insurance plans on its state exchange that do not cover elective abortions — thanks to a practicing Catholic who sued rather than pay a monthly fee to subsidize other people’s abortions.
The development marked a key turning point for Rhode Island’s pro-life community, which has been fighting the abortion surcharges in the Affordable Care Act’s health-care exchanges ever since President Barack Obama’s signature health-care legislation became law in 2010.
“What we achieved is that at least pro-lifers who don’t want to have to pay out of their own pockets each month a fee that will directly pay for other people’s abortions now have options. They now have an insurance plan available to them that will not require that mandatory abortion fee,” said Deacon Barth Bracy, the executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life Committee.
Deacon Bracy, though, called it a “partial victory,” telling the Register that serious abortion-related problems remain in the health-care law popularly known as Obamacare.
“The fact of the matter is that it’s still an outrage that a state-owned and operated entity, HealthSource RI, facilitates the sale of abortion coverage,” he said. “The state shouldn’t be doing that. Taxpayer funds should not be used to facilitate the buying and selling of coverage to kill babies.”
The plaintiff’s attorneys withdrew the lawsuit when Rhode Island state officials agreed to make available a health-insurance plan with no elective abortion coverage, guaranteeing that no portion of the monthly premium will be placed in an account that is used to cover the cost of elective abortion claims.
“The state will say they would have done this regardless, but what we say is that they had not done this. They had put people like Mr. Doe in this position. They were not offering options,” said Casey Mattox, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal firm that represented the anonymous plaintiff in Doe v. Burwell.
The plaintiff, who is HIV-positive, had not enrolled in a health-care plan in 2015 because of the abortion surcharge. He sued the state and federal government, citing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Rhode Island version of that law.
As part of the settlement, the state will pay the plaintiff’s monthly premiums from March through December as if he had enrolled, thus preventing him from facing fines under the individual mandate for failing to maintain coverage for the 2015 tax year.
Mattox told the Register that the settlement allows Doe to continue receiving AIDS Drug Assistance Program benefits under the federal Ryan White program.
“Our client desperately needed a plan, a plan that would both not include the abortion-payment requirement, but one that would also comply with some of the other requirements for a person in the HIV programs he was participating in,” Mattox said.
Gov. Raimondo Signs Budget Bill
Shortly after the pro-life victory, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a state budget bill that included a rider that incorporated language from the settlement in Doe v. Burwell. The new law requires six “individual market” plans on HealthSource RI that exclude coverage for elective abortion, with an additional three plans available, by request, in a modified variation that also exclude abortion coverage.
The law also allows employers who request a religious exemption to choose and offer health plans to employees that exclude abortion coverage. The employees will still have access to all health plans available through the exchange, said Maria Tocco, a spokeswoman for HealthSource RI.
“Regardless of whether an employee chooses a plan that includes or excludes coverage for most abortions, the employee pays the cost of the difference between the employer’s contribution and the plan price,” Tocco told the Register.
Said Tocco, “This new provision for small business market health plans was not prompted by the Doe v. Burwell lawsuit that involved individual and family market health plans.”
The new health-care offerings for pro-lifers angered several Raimondo supporters, who noted that the Democratic governor was endorsed by pro-abortion political action committees such as Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood Votes during her 2014 gubernatorial run.
Organizations such as Planned Parenthood of Southern New England and the ACLU of Rhode Island said they were surprised and disappointed that the governor had signed off on the budget, arguing that the amended exchange undermines access to comprehensive women’s health care and could cause up to 9,000 Rhode Island residents to lose abortion coverage. State officials said enrollees were notified by mail about the changes as well as what plans still cover abortion.
Meanwhile, Deacon Bracy said that Raimondo, despite her pro-abortion allegiances, had no choice but to sign the budget bill.
“I don’t believe she had any type of conversion,” he said. “This is not her abandoning her principles. It’s simply her realizing, ‘We did something wrong, and if we don’t settle, the courts are going to rule against us.’”
The Next Battleground: Vermont
The pro-life victory in Rhode Island marks the second time that Deacon Bracy has successfully challenged a state health-care exchange for its abortion policies. The deacon, who lives just over the state line in Connecticut, last year sued that state’s health-care exchange to force it to provide a health plan that did not include premiums to pay for abortions. Deacon Bracy and his wife, who were also represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, withdrew their lawsuit last November when Connecticut agreed to offer such a plan.
“Both Connecticut and Rhode Island knew what they did was illegal,” Deacon Bracy said. “The government in both cases settled because I think they knew they would lose. It was like they were a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. They didn’t even try to argue. They just said, ‘Okay, what do we have to do to make this go away?’”
Mattox, of Alliance Defending Freedom, said his organization is now handling a similar case in Vermont, which he said so far has resisted calls to change its state health-care exchange.
Said Mattox, “We’re in litigation right now.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.