TOPEKA — Abortion opponents in Kansas faced strong resistance Friday from important state senators in trying to gain legislative approval of a proposal to restrict private health insurance coverage for most abortions.
The proposal would prohibit insurance companies from automatically including coverage for abortions in their health plans, other than procedures necessary to save the mother's life. Companies would have to offer separate policies covering "elective" abortions.
A bill containing the proposal — along with provisions to prevent health plans for state workers from covering elective abortions — cleared the House Insurance Committee in March but died when the entire House failed to debate it before a key deadline. The Senate has not debated the issue this year.
Abortion opponents are pushing legislative negotiators to include the restrictions on private health coverage in another bill as they settle differences between the House and Senate on other insurance legislation. House negotiators are receptive, but the lead Senate negotiator, Ruth Teichman, R-Stafford, is not, and Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, told reporters Friday that such a move would violate the Legislature's rules.
"Once in a while, we'll get our arms twisted — either the House will get their arms twisted or the Senate will get their arms twisted — on passing something that's gotten by one house," Morris said. "But something that's not passed either house, that's pushing the limit too far."
Yet abortion opponents still hope to persuade lawmakers to restrict private health insurance coverage and perhaps state employees' coverage as well.
"We're just going to let it play out," said Kathy Ostrowski, lobbyist and legislative director for the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life. "It's too soon to say either one's dead yet."
Teichman, chairwoman of the Senate Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee, said the panel usually is skeptical of new mandates for insurance companies. She said the abortion proposals should go through the normal legislative process, including a review by her committee.
Peter Brownlie, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said abortion opponents are trying to "dispense with the rules and just do whatever they want," making it difficult for Kansas residents to follow the debate or weigh in.
"It really is a perversion of the democratic process," he said.
Most lawmakers in both chambers oppose abortion. This year, they've approved tighter restrictions on late-term abortions, health and safety rules specifically for abortion clinics and a requirement that doctors obtain parents' consent before terminating a minor's pregnancy.
Also, lawmakers regularly suspend deadlines and interpret their operating rules loosely so measures supported by majorities in both chambers can pass. Rep. Clark Shultz, R-Lindsborg, the House's lead negotiator on insurance issues, said the rules are loose enough to allow the abortion-coverage restrictions to be included in other insurance legislation.
"The subject matter of abortion has certain been debated all over the place this year," said Shultz, who's also chairman of both the House insurance and rules committees.
Five states, including Missouri, have laws requiring private insurance companies to offer coverage for most abortions in separate policies, with Utah lawmakers approving one this year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. A dozen limit abortion coverage for public employees.
"This is not a new concept," said Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, who's pushing the Kansas legislation.
Supporters of restricting private insurance for abortions argue that individuals and employers shouldn't be forced to pay for coverage of abortions if they're morally opposed to them. Families and companies with few employees often don't have the choice of opting out of such coverage, they say.
"There are a lot of companies that feel it's distasteful to pay for others' abortions," DeGraaf said, referring to employers.
Abortion rights supporters argue the real goal is to limit access to abortion by cutting off a potential way of paying for the procedure. They also say that if some members of a health insurance group object to paying premiums that might help pay for abortions, other members might object to their dollars paying for other medical procedures or prescription drugs.
"It's up to the individual, along with their doctor, to decide what is the best and the most appropriate medical care," said Julie Burkhart, founder of the abortion rights political action committee Trust Women, which lobbies in several states, including Kansas.