Abortion Issues Derail Approval of R.I. Health Exchange Bill

July 12, 2011 — After a disagreement between the state House and Senate over language affecting private health insurance coverage for abortion care, the Rhode Island Legislature adjourned for the year without approving a bill that would establish a state health insurance exchange as required under the federal health reform law (PL 111-148), the Providence Journal reports.

Rhode Island Health Insurance Commissioner Christopher Koller plans to ask Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) to issue an executive order to establish the exchange. The state has until Sept. 30 to apply for federal funding to develop the exchange. Missing the deadline would jeopardize "tens of millions" of dollars for the state, Koller said.

In January, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D) filed legislation to create the exchange. Before the measure's first hearing, she added language that would have prohibited health plans purchased through the exchange from covering abortion services, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman's life. Committee members unanimously approved the bill, mostly under the impression that the language mirrored abortion restrictions already in federal law. However, the American Civil Liberties Union's Rhode Island Affiliate said the language went significantly beyond federal law and would bar women from purchasing insurance coverage for abortion with their own money. Paiva Weed refused to change the language, and the Senate in April passed the measure 31-6. Key House supporters turned against the legislation because of the abortion language. Efforts to reach a compromise failed, and the House never approved the bill before the Legislature adjourned on July 1.

Paiva Weed said, "I certainly wish the pro-life, pro-choice issue had not become part of the discussion. Unfortunately, it did."

Chafee also did not support the Senate bill because of the abortion rider. Kate Brock, executive director of Ocean State Action and a member of the reform commission, said, "The attempts to restrict a woman's ability to purchase abortion coverage with her own private dollars are really unacceptable to us."

House Speaker Gordon Fox (D) said in statement, "I recognize the importance of affordable health insurance and passing the health exchange legislation was a priority for me. However, there was language in the Senate version of the bill that was much more restrictive than the federal law and neither I, nor many of my fellow House members, were comfortable with it. I proposed compromise language, but we couldn't reach an agreement" (Freyer, Providence Journal, 7/10).