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Monday, January 24, 2022

TWO OP-EDS: RI needs to pass the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act – now

Protect women's right to choose

By Steve Ahlquist

When the Reproductive Privacy Act was passed in 2019, it not only guaranteed a person’s right to abortion in Rhode Island, it also “included the removal of limits on private coverage for abortion that had been unenforced but remained on the books here in Rhode Island,” said Jocelyn Foye, director of the The Womxn Project. 

“However, that same kind of denial of health benefits for abortion is continuing for state employees as well as people who use Medicaid. This is an unfair and targeted attack on people’s ability to get an abortion simply because of the type of insurance they have.

“We don’t want to live in a state where the money you have in your bank account determines whether you can access health care or not,” said Foye.

Currently, Rhode Island prevents insurers from paying for abortion coverage under the state’s health care plan- which affects about 3000 state employees – and recipients of Medicaid – which affects mostly poor people, disabled people and people of color. Foye’s comments came during an online forum to discuss efforts to repeal these bans.

The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act (EACA) (H5787/S0267) seeks to deal with this discriminatory practice by providing for “abortion coverage in the Medicaid program and repeal[ing] the abortion coverage exclusion for state employee insurance plans.” [If you are interested in helping to repeal these bans, contact The Womxn Project here.]

“Abortion care is health care, and that is not something I can mince words about, especially in my field,” said Dr. Ogechukwu “Oge” Uwanaka, a Medical Practitioner and abortion provider. “I see the impacts that denying health benefits on our patients when patients are choosing between paying rent or going to get groceries due to a health service that they may have to pay out of pocket.”

“Repealing these restrictions will not by itself ensure full equality and equity for poor women and people of color, but doing so is a necessary precondition,” continued Dr. Uwanaka. “Anyone who cares about fighting racism and poverty must realize that attacks on abortion and abortion coverage are first and foremost attacks on port women and women of color.”

Passing this bill is essential to ensuring women’s “economic and social stability,” said Rep, Liana Cassar (Democrat, District 66, Barrington, East Providence), who is sponsoring the bill in the House. 

“This legislation is about equity. We all assume there’s fair treatment under the law. We all know that something isn’t a real right if only certain people can access it. And right now our laws don’t treat the individuals on Medicaid and the individuals on our state’s health care plans equally when it comes to access to abortion.”

“Passing the EACA this year will end decades of discrimination against public servants, their families, and people served by Medicaid,” said Senator Bridget Valverde (Democrat, District 35, East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett). “Abortion care can cost hundreds of dollars or more, and people should be able to get care in a timely fashion using their health coverage.

“These bans were put in place deliberately to discriminate against people that could be controlled. And we have to stope making it so hard on people.”

Senator Valverde, Representative Cassar and supporters have urged Governor Daniel McKee to include the repeal of these bans in his budget proposal that will be presented to the General Assembly in the next few weeks.

Rhode Island’s neighboring states, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New York do not have these restrictions. “Rhode Island is a discriminatory outlier,” said Senator Valverde. “And it has to end.”

Senator Valverde and Rep. Cassar: End Rhode Island’s abortion bans

“Passing the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act this year will ensure that when someone needs an abortion, they will not be denied care based on the source of their health insurance. “

By Liana Cassar and Bridget Valverde

Right now, there are tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who are denied access to abortion through their health coverage. We’re calling on Governor Daniel McKee to end these abortion coverage bans in this year’s budget.

The ability to make decisions about when or if we have children is under attack across the country. Some states are effectively banning abortion while the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. Access to care is falling further and further out of reach for so many Americans.

Rhode Island must buck this dangerous backwards trend. We have a responsibility to protect access to abortion for all Rhode Islanders. We took a major step forward by passing the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019 – the question of whether abortion should be legal in Rhode Island has been answered. But a legal right does not guarantee access to care. And a right is not real if there are laws on the books that say certain people cannot have abortion coverage.

Passing the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act (EACA)  (H5787/S0267) this year will ensure that when someone needs an abortion, they will not be denied care based on the source of their health insurance. 

The EACA is simple – it allows Rhode Island’s Medicaid program to cover abortion and it repeals the state law that prohibits state employee health plans from covering abortion. 

Without insurance coverage, most of us would struggle to access health care. Yet Rhode Islanders covered by state plans, including Medicaid, have deliberate and medically unnecessary restrictions on their access to health care.

Our state employee health plans cover about 32,000 Rhode Islanders – health professionals, college professors and students, the public servants who keep our state running, and their family members. They are all denied abortion coverage.

Medicaid covers over 25 percent of Rhode Islanders, 77,000 of whom are women of child-bearing age. Medicaid serves our lowest wage earners, people with disabilities, and current and former foster youth. They deserve equal access to health care, including abortion. By leaving people on Medicaid out of the Reproductive Privacy Act’s protections, we have created an unequal system.

When a patient can’t access abortion care because of cost, they are forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy or forgo paying for basic things like rent, groceries, or transportation to work. Given that 60 percent of people who seek abortion already have at least one child, this legislation impacts families. 

As the lead sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, we have asked Governor McKee to take action now by including its provisions in his upcoming budget proposal. Rhode Island has been a discriminatory outlier when it comes to abortion coverage bans. Passing this bill would put us in line with our neighboring states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. 

And it’s not just sound public policy. Allowing Medicaid to cover abortion is a mainstream Democratic value. President Biden supports allowing federal dollars to cover abortion through Medicaid – a change that is long overdue. But the federal government moves slowly and we can’t allow inaction in Washington to impede progress here in Rhode Island.

Now is the time. This is the year that Rhode Island stops discriminating against public servants, their families and people who use Medicaid. It is a question of health equity. We must end these harmful barriers to abortion care and we need the Governor to lead on it.

Representative Liana Cassar (Democrat, District 66, Barrington, East Providence) and Senator Bridget Valverde (Democrat, District. 35, North Kingstown, East Greenwich, Narragansett, South Kingstown) are the sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.