WASHINGTON — Several Republican senators are pushing to limit taxpayer funding of abortion and federal support for assisted suicide as part of the newest health-reform proposal.
The efforts of abortion and euthanasia opponents came as the Senate Finance Committee began to consider more than 500 amendments the week of Sept. 21 to a new bill, America’s Healthy Future Act, which seeks to become the only bipartisan approach to overhauling the nation’s health-care system.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., sought to avoid some of the controversies that other major health-reform proposals have generated in areas such as abortion by saying his measure would not change “the status quo” on the issue.
However, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the panel’s ranking Republican, criticized many of the plan’s key components and said the bill falls short in preventing the use of taxpayer funding for abortion.
“On abortion, despite commitments made by the president and [Health and Human Services] Secretary Sebelius, this bill does not follow the longstanding principle that federal funds should not be provided for elective abortions,” Grassley said during the committee review of the bill. “Instead, federal funds would end up subsidizing elective abortions, and plans that offer abortion coverage would be subsidized with those same federal funds.”
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., offered several amendments that aimed to restrict taxpayer funding of abortion, including one that would bar the federal government from requiring that a health plan cover or provide access to abortions except in the case where the mother’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
The amendment would delete the bill’s requirement that local federally supported insurance marketplaces include at least one plan that covered elective abortions, among other steps.
The Enzi amendment and similar amendments by other Republicans followed the analysis of the bill by Doug Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, that concluded the bill would send “massive” federal subsidies directly to both private insurance plans and government-chartered cooperatives that pay for elective abortion.
“This would be a drastic break from longstanding federal policy, under which federal funds do not pay for elective abortions or subsidize health plans that cover elective abortions,” Johnson said.
More Insured, More Abortion?
Johnson noted, for example, that current law prohibits any of the more than 250 private health plans that insure federal employees from paying for elective abortions because these plans receive federal subsidies.
Democrats maintained that the Baucus bill was conciliatory on abortion and would not provide federal funding for elective abortions.
“We don’t fund abortion in this legislation,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., during the committee’s amendment session on the bill. “Instead of focusing on what divides us, why don’t we focus on what unites us?”
However, the nonpartisan site PolitiFact.com, maintained by the St. Petersburg Times, concluded that the Baucus bill would allow private companies participating in the exchange and the cooperative to offer abortion services, and people in both plans could receive federal subsidies.
The result would likely expand access to abortion coverage for millions of women.
“If millions of uninsured people would now get insurance due to the health-care plan, and some of the plans offer abortion insurance, we think it’s fair to conclude the Baucus plan would mean more women would have access to abortion services,” wrote Robert Farley, at PolitiFact.com.
The initial draft of the Baucus bill contained language that would have allowed the federal government to declare some abortions to be a “mandated benefit as part of a minimum-benefits package” in any private insurance plan, according to Johnson.
The provision went beyond the abortion support found in other versions of health reform that drew criticism, although the coverage mandate initially would have been limited to cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother was at stake. The practical result of the provision has been that all insurers would likely cover all elective abortions because they lack the ability to determine what the circumstances were that brought the woman to the procedure, according to Johnson.
The provision was dropped, however, in a revised version of the bill that Baucus offered on Sept. 22.
Another controversial area of medicine was the focus of an amendment by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, which would prohibit the use of federal funds for assisted suicide and “offers conscience protection to providers or plans refusing to offer assisted suicide services.”
The revised version of the bill offered Sept. 22 incorporated the amendment; however, the bill must eventually be combined with one approved by another Senate committee that rejected a similar amendment in July.
The amendment ensured that the provisions of a 1997 law barring federal funding for insurance plans that cover assisted suicide also apply to the health-reform bill. Some insurers in Oregon and Washington state, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, currently reimburse physicians for the cost of such procedures.
Another proposal in the bill that has drawn criticism from some Catholic and family groups would establish a new visitation program for pregnant women and parents with children younger than 6 years old. The program would provide $1.5 billion in the first five years for programs nationwide in which local officials would visit the homes of such families to offer advice on parenting. Critics have voiced concerns that such programs may become thinly veiled attempts to target for investigation families that are unpopular with some health-care activists, such as large families and those who home school their children.
The Home School Legal Defense Association, based in Purcellville, Va., opposed other health-reform bills explicitly because they included similar federal support for home-visitation programs. Their opposition came despite the bills’ description of participation as “voluntary.” The Baucus bill contains no specification that its visitation programs will be voluntary.
Rich Daly writes