Lansing— Two female Democratic lawmakers said Monday they will pursue a long-shot attempt to reverse a controversial law that blocks insurers from paying for abortions as part of general coverage in company health plans.
The law was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature without a public hearing in December 2013 on the basis of petitions circulated by Right to Life of Michigan. It requires women to pay extra for insurance riders if they want abortion coverage. The law took effect in March.
Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, a staunch opponent, said she hears almost daily from women who “are scared, confused and absolutely appalled by what this law does.”
“It’s downright insulting to expect Michigan women to anticipate and financially plan for rape, incest or a miscarriage,” she said in a statement.
Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, plans to introduce a similar measure in the House.
“Of the 42 health insurers in Michigan, only seven offer this rider,” Roberts said. “In addition, women who buy insurance on their own are not able to get it because it’s only available through employer health plans.”
While acknowledging that chances are slim their bills will pass the GOP-dominated House and Senate, Roberts said: “We will ask, and we will fight to get a hearing and to get a vote.”
Right to Life of Michigan Public Information Director Pamela Sherstad said Monday she is “unaware of any genuine concerns from health professionals from Michigan, or any other state, regarding the treatment of miscarriage or ectopic (tubular) pregnancy because of this law.”
She said the law clearly does not prohibit treating those problems, using contraception drugs and devices, or terminating pregnancies when a doctor reasonably believes a mother’s life is at stake.
Sherstad said 26 states have passed abortion coverage opt-out legislation that is allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“Introducing legislation moments prior to a summer recess speaks volumes,” Sherstad said. “The supporters of (the legislation) know there is no future for this bill.”
The Legislature left Lansing last week for summer break; lawmakers will return for four or fewer days in July and August.
"It seems highly unlikely they are hearing as much from residents about this issue as they are about working on road funding solutions," said Anna Heaton, spokeswoman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall.
"Contrary to the Democrats' belief, abortion is not the only issue women care about. Our members out in their districts are hearing from men and women both predominantly about the need to continue working on long-term road funding solutions. So while their initiative in working on legislation is admirable, it seems like that time would be better spent coming back to the table with proposals for how to improve our roads and bridges without raising taxes."
The Democratic legislators’ move came a few days after state Rep. Tom Hooker, R-Byron Center, introduced bills to further restrict abortions. Under one, if a doctor detected a fetal heartbeat, the mother would be required to listen to it before undergoing an abortion. Another would outlaw abortion if there were a fetal heartbeat.
At Monday’s announcement, Roberts said abortion riders aren’t available to women buying health insurance on their own or through Affordable Care Act exchanges.
Dr. Timothy R.B. Johnson, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said the vague law creates uncertainty about medical intervention for incomplete miscarriages in which a fetus isn’t viable or in cases involving genetic abnormalities in which a fetus will die before or very soon after birth.
Physicians can face $10,000 fines for seeking reimbursement for such procedures if they are considered abortions, said Johnson, a University of Michigan professor. Violating the law is a felony that can put a doctor’s license to practice in jeopardy, he added.
Johnson said women already facing tough decisions must worry about a potential $8,000 hospital bill that insurance won’t pay. One or two cases a week fall into this gray area at University of Michigan hospitals, where 4,000 babies a year are delivered, he said.
“In my practice, I have seen patients suffering as a result of this law,” Johnson said.
Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed an abortion rider bill sent to him by lawmakers in 2012, but Right to Life members circulated petitions and collected enough signatures last year to give lawmakers the option of passing a veto-proof law or sending it to the ballot.
Lawmakers passed it themselves. It was sent directly to the House and Senate floor, without traditional committee hearings, and passed quickly during the Legislature’s two-week December lame-duck session.
Under the state Constitution, the governor’s signature isn’t required for a petition-initiated proposal to become law and he also can’t veto the Legislature’s action.