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House vaults fiscal hurdle

Bill expanding insurance for abortion passes

OLYMPIA – When Democrats introduced a proposal this year to expand insurance coverage for abortions, the initial debate was pretty standard: pro-life vs. pro-choice.

But before the bill could pass the House, the debate was shifting to a fiscal question: Would the state lose some $6 billion in federal money by running afoul of one federal law as it tries to comply with another one?

A last-minute fix before the House approved the bill this week may have answered the fiscal concerns. Legislators and witnesses at a Senate hearing Thursday once again focused mainly on the standard arguments for and against abortion rights. But the controversy over funding shows the danger of a committee deciding policy before legislators get a report on the fiscal impact, a budget analyst says.

“It’s probably a good example of why you shouldn’t move bills before the fiscal note is ready,” said Jason Mercier, of the Washington Policy Center, who added he doesn’t take a stand one way or the other on the bill’s policy regarding abortion.

HB 2330 requires that any health care policy in Washington that offers maternity benefits must also cover abortion.

That’s essentially the way the law is now, with certain exceptions for religious institutions, and some employers have plans that cover neither. But under the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans and other critics often call Obamacare, all health care plans must offer maternity benefits. So if HB 2330 passes, nearly all plans in Washington would also cover abortion, with only a few exceptions.

The initial debate over the bill was similar to the national debate over federal rules that would mandate contraception coverage. Some religious groups, particularly those connected with the Catholic Church, object to offering a plan that covers something they consider morally abhorrent.

But state Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, who opposes abortion, later found another problem with the bill. A federal law known as the Weldon Amendment prohibits federal money from going to a state that funds abortion too broadly. The more he looked into the conflict between the different federal rules, the more he was convinced it would cost the state a significant amount of money.

Fiscal analysts eventually agreed, saying the federal government could withhold as much as $6 billion for everything from Medicaid to roads if federal officials decided to invoke the Weldon Amendment.

Hinkle eventually offered an amendment that says if there’s a conflict with federal law, the state statute is void; the amended bill passed the House Monday. He and other Republicans said HB 2330 is a case of majority Democrats letting their ideology drive the agenda, a complaint they also made about the passage of same-sex marriage.

State Sen. Karen Keiser, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee and a supporter of the right to choose an abortion, said the bill is about equal rights for women’s health, and the threat to withhold money is being overblown. Washington has covered those services since 1991, when voters passed an initiative on a woman’s right to an abortion, she said.

“If the federal government had any intention of threatening federal funds, they would’ve done it years ago,” Keiser said. Still, she doesn’t have a problem with the amendment, because many bills carry language that they are void if they conflict with federal law.

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, argues the bill isn’t necessary because there are already insurance policies available that cover abortion services. “Why risk $6 billion?”

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the Legislature wouldn’t put billions of dollars at risk but she believes the amendment, which was studied by the governor’s office as well as legislative staff, takes care of that.

Still, Brown was happy the House had to tackle the controversial abortion bill initially. It seemed only fair, since the Senate had to go first on same-sex marriage.

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