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House tentatively OKs excluding abortions in NC health insurance exchange

RALEIGH Abortions will not be covered in North Carolina’s online health insurance exchange, which is coming as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, nor through the plans cities and counties offer their workers, under a bill tentatively approved 67-38 in the House late Wednesday night.

The bill would also allow any health care provider to refuse to participate in abortions; current law protects doctors and nurses.

The bill only narrowly cleared a committee earlier in the day because of a controversial provision that would have allowed private employers to exclude contraception coverage in their health insurance plans. But behind-the-scenes negotiations Wednesday night led several key Republicans – including two of the bill’s main sponsors – to propose deleting that provision so the rest of the legislation would survive.

Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, a Charlotte Republican, argued in vain to save the contraception restriction, but the amendment passed overwhelmingly.

The maneuver ensured that House Bill 730 will survive the crossover deadline with a final vote Thursday in advance of the midnight deadline.

Controversial bills that require votes be taken over two days made Wednesday a key turning point for meeting the deadline to pass from one chamber to another. The rush of legislation has made for long days this week in the General Assembly, particularly the House, which generates far more bills.

The bill’s rocky start began earlier in the day as Republicans in a House judiciary subcommittee were not unified in supporting it.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, a freshman Republican from Edenton who described himself as a hard-core abortion opponent, said he would support the bill only if the prohibition on contraception coverage was removed.

“It’s almost like we’re stepping back in time,” Steinburg said. “To suggest in the 21st century that women would be prevented from having access to birth control – even as far to the right as I am – is going off the cliff. This is going too far.”

Costumed spectators

Steinburg’s remark about stepping back in time played directly into the costume-themed statement that members of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina and other abortion-rights supporters staged in the audience. About 15 of them dressed up in early-1960s attire of the “Mad Men” TV show to make the point that the Republican-controlled legislature was rolling back women’s progress in society.

Steinburg pointed out that contraceptives are sometimes prescribed to people with other medical conditions, including his wife. He also said making contraception more difficult will exacerbate births out of wedlock and further strain government budgets.

Schaffer said it wasn’t about limiting access to birth control but changing who pays for it.

An amendment to take the birth control provision out of the bill failed on a tie vote in committee, with Republican Reps. Steinburg, Jon Hardister of Greensboro and Leo Daughtry of Smithfield siding with Democrats. The Greensboro News-Record reported that committee member Rep. Marcus Brandon, a Democrat from High Point, could have cast the tie-breaking vote but was in another meeting.

The committee voted 8-6 to approve the bill, with Hardister’s support.

Current state law allows “religious employers” to exclude coverage for contraceptives. The bill would have expanded that to any employer who has a “religious, moral or ethical objection” to providing that coverage. It says cities and counties can’t offer insurance that provides any coverage for abortion greater than what is in the State Health Plan, which doesn’t cover abortions, except to save the mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest.

Barbara Holt, president of N.C. Right to Life, said her organization doesn’t take a position on birth control. But she said it was strongly in favor of the rest of the bill. She said 21 states, including South Carolina, have voted not to include abortion coverage in their health exchanges.

‘Religious freedom’

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, told the committee, “It’s a matter of religious freedom, not discrimination.”

The bill was rewritten at the last minute to include the abortion coverage ban in the health insurance exchange and state and county plans. Several Democrats on the committee objected. Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Democrat from Durham, called it “legislation by ambush.” But they failed to block consideration of the proposal.

Abortion-rights advocates rallied against the bill, which they see as part of a larger pattern by the Republican-dominated legislature to make abortions as difficult as possible. NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina said it generated more than 1,500 phone calls and thousands of emails to House Speaker Thom Tillis’ office opposing the bill this week.

Suzanne Buckley, the group’s executive director, told the committee that a study had found nearly 90 percent of private health insurance plans offer contraceptive coverage.

Cities and counties are inconsistent in their insurance coverage. Wake County’s employee insurance plan doesn’t cover abortion, but Raleigh’s does through the first 16 weeks of pregnancy.

“Banning abortion coverage in the health care exchange is yet another example of politicians imposing their own views on private medical decisions,” Buckley said. “Despite what the bill’s sponsors would have you believe, health insurance benefits are part of employee compensation, not government subsidies.”

Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat, said the proposed law ventures into unsound legal territory – noting federal court rulings that have gone against several abortion bills the legislature passed last session.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576
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