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Senate defeats health insurance program

Posted: April 13, 2011 - 9:13pm

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate on Wednesday defeated a measure to expand a health insurance program for low-income children and pregnant women.

The 10-10 vote was a turnaround from last year when the same proposal passed the Senate 15-4. There is just one new member of the Senate this year, Cathy Giessel, a member of the four-person conservative Republican minority who took the seat of the now-retired Con Bunde, a “no” vote in 2010.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, served notice that she could seek a reconsideration vote. That is usually done if it’s believed there could be a change in the vote tally.

Davis said she wanted to send a message by advancing the bill. Gov. Sean Parnell vetoed an expansion last year, saying the program paid for abortions. But Davis told her colleagues that someone needs to stand up for women and children.

“It has to be us,” she said.

She said the bill would restore the original income eligibility threshold established more than a decade ago, raising it from the current 175 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Her sponsor statement said the change would extend coverage to another nearly 1,300 uninsured children and more than 200 pregnant women.

Abortion was a key issue in floor debate Wednesday. Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said he believes the Senate has shown a propensity for standing up for children and families but that he in good conscience could not vote for a bill that would help some but also result in abortions.

Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire countered that the Senate cannot turn its back on pregnant women who need help.

The Alaska Supreme Court has held that the state must fund medically necessary abortions if it funds medically necessary services for others with financial needs. Abortions funded through Denali KidCare would have to be deemed medically necessary by a doctor.

The Department of Health and Social Services said 618 individuals received abortion-related services in 2010. Those services include such things as office visits, lab tests, sonograms or abortions. The department’s Division of Health Care Services said it’s possible that some women receive services in anticipation of obtaining an abortion but that those women ultimately do not get abortions paid by the state. Those women would be included in the count.

The division said it doesn’t produce reports with information on “the actual number of women who have abortions paid by the state.”

Jon Sherwood, medical assistance administrator for the health department, told Davis’ Health and Social Services Committee last month that the department was looking at possible options that could satisfy the concerns of both Parnell and those who want to expand the program. He didn’t elaborate.

Parnell has said he cannot envision a scenario in which he’d support an expansion.

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