New restrictions on using state money for abortions may reach farther than anyone thinks, some Democrats are saying.
Legislators last week narrowly approved a proposal by Gov. Bob McDonnell to remove the state’s voluntary option of providing Medicaid coverage for abortions performed to protect the health of the mother. The bill now follows state requirements outlined in the federal 1976 Hyde Amendment that limits Medicaid coverage of abortions to circumstances of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger. The legislation still retains a Virginia provision allowing coverage when the fetus is found to have an incapacitating deformity.
But the bill’s language outlining the use of state money in the Medicaid program only for specific circumstances of abortion raises a red flag among some Democratic lawmakers.
Del. David Englin, D-Alexandria, beleives the language could be interpreted to mean that state money — in any form — can provide coverage only for Medicaid patients. Such an interpretation could make it illegal for state-sponsored medical centers like those at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University to offer abortion services to private-pay patients, he said.
“Whether he intended it this way or not, the sloppy language of the governor’s amendment says that a wealthy woman who could have gone to VCU or UVA and paid out-of-pocket for an abortion if she was raped cannot do that anymore,” Englin said. “The Hyde Amendment doesn’t apply to her because she is not receiving Medicaid.”
Englin said the ban should have included an exception for public hospitals, making it clear that women can still get an abortion at a public hospital as long as they pay for it themselves. He said he’s not sure if McDonnell realizes the scope of the ban, but guesses the governor knew what he was doing.
“I assume he worded this as broadly as he could because his preference is to make all abortions illegal,” Englin said. “I think that aspect of the legislation was somewhat below the radar until now. [Legislators] only realized the broad implications at the very last minute.”
Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, also believes the ban reaches farther than people think.
Houck said the amendment seems to focus on keeping public money away from abortion services beyond what is required by federal law. He said some that during the debate, some lawmakers appeared to want the prohibition to cover hospitals that receive public funding.
“When you try to tease out what that means you get to UVA medical system, and that might mean a woman who comes in with medical condition and is pregnant, you would not be able to do an abortion in that regard, possibly putting her at jeopardy,” Houck said.
But that’s not how the governor interprets the new ban, according to McDonnell spokesperson Stacey Johnson. She said it doesn’t apply to abortion services paid for privately in public hospitals.
“UVA can still take private payment for abortions, it does not affect that,” Johnson said.
UVA spokesperson Carol Wood said it’s unclear how the ban will apply to the medical center.
“It’s difficult for us to interpret this legislation…whether it’s going to be interpreted one way or another,” Wood said. “We’re still waiting to hear exactly what the impact would be on us.”