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Colorado Maternity Care Mandate Raises Pro-choice Hackles

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Written by Wendy Norris for RHRealityCheck.org - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

While Congress and the White House dither on healthcare reform, state lawmakers across the country grapple with the practicalities of the uninsured, discriminatory gender rating and mandated care.

In Colorado, a seemingly feel-good bill to require insurance plans to cover maternity care and contraception is fraught with problems that could have and should have been solved by the long-delayed federal legislation.

However, in today's highly charged political realm with spiraling state budget deficits and the lingering effects of a recession that just won't quit, even motherhood and apple pie can't get a unanimous vote in a crucial election year.

A reproductive healthcare mandate bill passed its first major hurdle on a largely party line 37-27 vote Tuesday in the Colorado House with some surprising defections by pro-choice lawmakers.

A peek behind the legislative sausage-making curtain exemplifies the deep political divisions being created with incremental approaches by states to fix an intractable and unsustainable national healthcare crisis.

Emilie Ailts, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, laid down a pre-vote challenge to conservative lawmakers to channel their much ballyhooed family values:

Will the anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-comprehensive sex education politicians vote their purported values, which they claim are about healthy babies and healthy families? House Bill 1021 provides a clear opportunity for these anti-choice lawmakers to enact responsible policies that can reduce the need for abortion by ensuring women have access to the prenatal care they need for healthy pregnancies.

Twenty-six of the "no" votes were cast by GOP members. None of the dozen Republican House members with longstanding anti-choice records who voted against the bill, including some who amended and approved it in committee days before, returned calls for comment. The amendments that significantly watered down the bill and specifically noted that abortion care was not covered were eventually thrown out by the House after flexing its 11-vote majority.

However, the biggest danger with the bill is the caustic stew of ideological posturing, political gamesmanship and over-promised and under-delivered healthcare reform that could leave a bitter taste in the mouths of an increasingly surly mid-term electorate.

Two unexpected opposition votes from pro-choice lawmakers are especially telling about the skittish local mood.

Concerns about insurance affordability for rural women

Rep. Ellen Roberts, a moderate Republican from rural southwest Colorado, expressed reservations about how the bill was being fast tracked through committee and ultimately voted against it.

"It's not content specific," said Roberts explaining her pained vote against maternity care. "I've always been a strong supporter of women's issues."

Roberts primary beef is the already limited options for rural communities to buy into healthcare plans. Few insurance carriers offer individual or small group plans in remote regions of the state. That's coupled with broad public perceptions that a coverage mandate -- even a widely popular one like maternity care -- would increase premiums to the point of becoming unaffordable

"My constituents are contacting me seriously two to three times a week telling me 'no more mandates' because we are going to have to drop our insurance," said Roberts.

Those with the gold make the rules

The Durango Republican was also miffed that House Democratic leaders knuckled down and bypassed the state's Commission on Mandated Health Benefits which provides nonpartisan cost benefit analysis to lawmakers.

"That's the kind of information I need to make an educated vote," said Roberts acknowledging that both Republicans and Democrats alike have ignored the cumbersome committee when pushing though legislation. The 11-member commission of insurance experts, health policy advocates and consumers has been widely criticized for its slow pace in reviewing bills often introduced at a breakneck pace during the state's three-month legislative session.