CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia's House minority leader vowed on Tuesday to pursue legislation restricting abortion coverage in the state's health care exchange, saying he's not deterred that similar efforts have failed in the past.
Enrollment for West Virginia's health insurance exchange begins Oct. 1, and coverage begins Jan. 1. The exchanges are part of the massive federal health care overhaul that aims to cover millions of uninsured people throughout the nation. An obscure part of the law allows states to restrict abortion coverage by private plans operating in new insurance markets, known as exchanges.
In the past few years, nearly half the nation's states have passed laws prohibiting abortion coverage in health insurance plans offered by the new state exchanges, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of the states allow exceptions in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. Insurers still could offer separate policies to specifically cover abortion.
Republican Del. Tim Armstead said while previous attempts to restrict abortion coverage in West Virginia have failed largely along party lines, he believes there's growing momentum among the state's residents that could change some lawmakers' minds next legislative session.
"To force individuals or companies to insure abortion as part of this coverage is just absolutely against all of what West Virginians stand for and what West Virginians want to see their government do. Hopefully the outcry that's taken place will change the attitude of many of the legislators who voted to keep abortion in that coverage," Armstead said. "We're very hopeful we'll be able to see it removed in the upcoming session."
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of the abortion-rights group WV FREE, said fears that taxpayers would be funding abortions through the exchange are unfounded and that bringing up the topic days before enrollment begins shows the move is a political ploy.
"We know it's going to bring health care to thousands of West Virginians, so it's disappointing at best to see any organization in West Virginia fighting against it at this point. It's a political stalling tactic and it would appear it's a play right out of the Republican playbook," she said. "I think this is a last-ditch effort to try to bring negative publicity to it."
Armstead made his comments following a news conference by the anti-abortion group West Virginians for Life. The group handed Armstead a petition containing about 7,000 signatures collected over the past three weeks. The group wants Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, to call a special session to address the issue before coverage begins in January. Failing that, the group said it wants Tomblin to direct the state insurance commissioner to develop a rule change effectively allowing the state to opt out of the abortion coverage.
"Since signing up for the insurance through the exchange will begin Oct. 1, there is an urgent need for leadership on this issue. This grass roots effort will continue through the next legislative session until an opt-out provision is written into state code," said John Carey, West Virginians For Life's legislative coordinator.
A message left with a Tomblin spokeswoman wasn't immediately returned on Tuesday.