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House Panel Targets Abortion Coverage at Year's First Hearing

House Panel Targets Abortion Coverage at Year's First Hearing

January 10, 2014 — Abortion-rights supporters during a House committee hearing Thursday testified against a bill (HR 7) that would increase restrictions on abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), arguing that the true aim of the measure is to make abortion less accessible, the National Journal reports (Novack, National Journal, 1/9).

The bill, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would bar federal tax credits to individuals who purchase health plans that include abortion coverage, as well as small businesses that offer such plans to their employees (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/9). Titled the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act, the bill also would define Washington, D.C., as part of the federal government, thereby prohibiting the district from using its own locally raised funds to pay for abortion care (Hess, Roll Call, 1/9).

The measure would not apply in cases of rape or incest or when a woman's life is in danger (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/9). According to the National Journal, it is unlikely that the Senate would pass the measure.

Background on Abortion Coverage Restrictions

The Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976, bans the use of federal funds for abortion, except in very limited circumstances. Meanwhile, the ACA for the first time offers federal tax credits to help people purchase private health plans through the law's health insurance marketplaces (National Journal, 1/9).

The ACA does not prohibit abortion coverage and lets insurers determine whether they will offer it. However, the law requires health plans to segregate money collected for abortion coverage from other premiums. States can also pass additional restrictions on abortion coverage in the insurance marketplaces, and close to half have done so. In addition, the law requires that at least one multi-state plan, available in every state by 2017, does not cover abortion beyond cases when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest or when a woman's life is in danger (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/11/13).

Key Arguments at Hearing

At Thursday's hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, opponents of HR 7 argued that it would threaten abortion access and make unprecedented tax and insurance changes.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said, "HR 7 is a radical departure from current tax treatment of medical expenses and insurance coverage and it is neither justifiable nor necessary to prevent federal funding of abortion." He argued that the bill goes well beyond codifying existing policies, as supporters maintain.

Judiciary Committee Chair Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) countered that "the real radical departure here is the fact that now we will have, for the first time, federal subsidies of health insurance policies in America." He claimed the change will create "a major, substantial breach in the Hyde amendment" (Attias, CQ Roll Call, 1/9).

Meanwhile, Susan Wood, associate professor of health policy and director of the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health at George Washington University, testified that passage of the bill could have a "chilling effect" on insurers' traditional inclusion of abortion coverage in their plans. "Those who oppose abortion have tried and failed to make it illegal, so they're trying to make it almost impossible to obtain," Wood said (National Journal, 1/9).

Richard Doerflinger -- a witness for the Republican majority and associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- argued that the law specifically allows individuals who do not receive subsidies to purchase private abortion coverage (CQ Roll Call, 1/9).

Debate Over D.C. Autonomy

During the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) rejected a request to allow Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) five minutes to speak about how the law would affect her constituents. Norton said she opposed the measure, arguing that it would "both violate my local government's right to self-government and harm its female residents."

Franks said there was no reason to call Norton as an additional witness for the minority, "since the bill only mentions the District of Columbia to make clear that funds appropriated by Congress for [D.C.] shall be, of course, considered federal funds -- just like all other federal funds" (Roll Call, 1/9).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement lambasted his refusal to let Norton testify, saying that the Republican Party has not learned any lessons from the 2012 elections when it has "a subcommittee that is 100 percent male considering legislation restricting women's rights and denying a woman Member of Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the ability to testify on that legislation" (Trujillo, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 1/9).