WASHINGTON – The politics of the abortion debate are always tricky for lawmakers. They may soon get personal.
An attempt to fix a problem with the national health care law has created a situation in which members of Congress and their staffers could gain access to abortion coverage. That’s a benefit currently denied to them and to all federal employees who get health insurance through the government’s plan.
Abortion opponents say the Obama administration needs to fix the congressional exception; abortion rights supporters say such concerns are overblown.
The abortion complication is another headache for the administration as it tries to shoehorn members of Congress and certain staffers into insurance markets coming later this year under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
An amendment by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley — who opposes “Obamacare” and abortion — requires lawmakers and their personal staff to get private coverage through the same markets that uninsured Americans will use.
Last week, the Office of Personnel Management said the government would keep paying its share of premiums for lawmakers and affected staffers who must leave the federal employee health care system by Jan. 1. That eased a major anxiety for several thousand staffers accustomed to getting the same benefits as other federal employees.
But the proposed regulation did not explicitly address abortion coverage. Under the health care law, insurance plans in the new markets may cover abortion unless a state passes a law prohibiting them from doing so. Plans offering coverage for abortion, however, may not use federal funds to pay for it. Federal tax credits to help the uninsured afford coverage must be kept apart from premiums collected for abortion coverage.
Abortion opponents say the regulation would circumvent a longstanding law that bars the use of taxpayer funds for “administrative expenses in connection with any health plan under the federal employees health benefits program which provides any benefits or coverage for abortions.” Unlike many private corporate plans, federal employee plans only cover abortions in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
The funding ban, in place since the 1980s, is known as the Smith amendment.
An independent expert on the federal employee plan said abortion opponents appear to have a legitimate question, but the applicable laws are so arcane that it’s hard to tell who’s right.
“This goes into a legal thicket the complexity of which I can’t begin to fathom,” said Walton Francis, lead author of an annual guide to federal health benefits. “It would take lawyers hours to decipher the interrelationship between these statutes, and they would probably come to different conclusions.”