Boston Globe by Edward Fitzpatrick | May 19, 2023 || After votes in the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives, Governor McKee signs bills providing publicly funded abortion coverage for state employees and Medicaid recipients
PROVIDENCE — With a series of swift votes and the stroke of a pen, legislation expanding abortion coverage in Rhode Island to Medicaid recipients and state employees became law on Thursday. The Senate on Thursday voted 24 to 12 for the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would allow state employees and Medicaid recipients to receive health insurance coverage for all abortions. The House had voted 49 to 24 for the legislation on April 27, and it immediately passed the Senate version of the bill by a vote of 44 to 18.
Flanked by legislators and advocates, Governor Daniel J. McKee signed the bills in his State House office. The Cumberland Democrat had proposed a state budget that includes $592,000 for Medicaid abortion coverage, and $29,500 for state employee abortion coverage.
“I was very pleased to be able to follow through,” McKee said. “This issue is not a budget issue any longer. It was an issue of equity and making sure that everyone had equal health on their insurance.” House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, said, “It’s about trusting women, ensuring that all women have equal to the health care that they need.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Senator Bridget Valverde, the North Kingstown Democrat who introduced the Senate version of the bill. “More than ever, people are aware of the importance of having access real access, without financial barriers to the full range of reproductive care, which includes abortion.”
She said state employees have not had abortion coverage in their health insurance since 1981, and Medicaid recipients have not had abortion coverage since the federal Hyde Amendment passed in 1976. If her bill becomes law, Rhode Island will join 16 other states that use state funds for abortion services. Federal funds still won’t be used for most abortions because of the Hyde Amendment, which allows funding for abortions in cases of rape, incest, or to save a pregnant person’s life.
The bill signing followed debates and votes in the Senate and House. Valverde kicked off the Senate debate, noting that in 2019 the General Assembly passed the Reproductive Privacy Act, which protected abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – which it did last year.
“But the work has remained unfinished because, for so many, the right has remained elusive,” she said. “And that is because the right to a health care service is useless if we intentionally prevent people’s health insurance from covering it. The ban on abortion coverage in Medicaid and state plans has been an unfair, unjust barrier to the full range of reproductive health care, which includes abortion.”
But Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, spoke against the bill, saying, “For decades, the consensus has been that regardless of one’s view on the legality or appropriateness of abortion, taxpayers should not be forced or encouraged to pay for abortion.’
For decades, Rhode Island has prevented taxpayer-funding for “elective” abortions, she said, but it has allowed for abortions in cases of rape, incest, or to save “the life of the mother.’
“I heard a lot of sad stories about women who weren’t able to procure abortions,” de la Cruz said. “Well, they can, but if they can’t afford it, I suggest perhaps asking Planned Parenthood instead of spending money on lobbying, they could give that money to women who need abortions.”
She said it was clear how the Senate vote would turn out. “But today’s vote is an egregious overstep of the state government,” she said. “Those who vote ‘no’ stand firmly on the side of the taxpayer, respect for religious freedom, and conscientious objectors.”
The fight is not over, de la Cruz said, noting that the state Constitution says, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to grant or secure any right relating to abortion or the funding thereof.” She there will be legal challenges and she hopes they are successful.
But advocates hailed the passage of the legislation.
“As parts of the United States enact ever-stricter restrictions on abortion, here in Rhode Island we stand strongly with reproductive freedom, and will work tirelessly to make care available to all,” said Nicole Jellinek, chair of the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom.
Jocelyn Foye, director of The Womxn Project and organizer with the statewide Campaign for Equal Abortion Coverage, said, “We don’t want to live in a community where the money you have in the bank determines if you get to have an abortion when you need one. We are so grateful that in Rhode Island, no matter what kind of insurance someone uses, that after tonight they will get to control their own body and plan their families and their futures.”
Gretchen Raffa, vice president of public policy, advocacy and organizing at Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island, said, “The EACA will ensure people can make the health care decisions that are best for them about their bodies and their lives without political interference.”