JUNEAU — Monday marks the 35th day of the Legislature, and that means the cutoff for introduction of personal legislation. After that, only committees are allowed to introduce bills or resolutions.
More than 600 bills and resolutions of various types have been introduced so far during the 28th Legislature, which began last year. About 70 bills have passed, according to the Legislature’s website.
While work continues on the major issues of this session — the gas pipeline project, state budget and education — here are three more things to watch for:
The House Finance Committee on Tuesday is scheduled to take up proposals seeking to further define what constitutes a medically necessary abortion for the purposes of Medicaid payments. The House and Senate versions of the bill are similar, though the Senate bill includes language — added on the Senate floor prior to passage last year— requiring the health department to make available to eligible recipients a women’s health program.
Both bills are similar to regulations approved by the state health commissioner that are currently the subject of a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest. Under the new rules, the certificate to request Medicaid funds features two boxes. Under the first, an abortion provider would have to certify the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or the abortion was performed to save the woman’s life. Under the second, a provider would have to indicate an abortion was medically necessary to avoid a threat of serious risk to the woman’s physical health from continuation of her pregnancy due to “impairment of a major bodily function.” It cites a list of conditions among the options for what would be considered medically necessary. It also includes what health commissioner Bill Streur has called a “catch-all option,” described as “another physical disorder, physical injury, physical illness, including a physical condition arising from the pregnancy.”
A judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of the regulations, pending trial.
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, is the sponsor of the Senate bill, SB49. He said he is pressing forward, regardless of the lawsuit, because laws hold more weight than regulations. He also said it’s a policy issue, and given the growth the state has seen in its Medicaid program overall, he said it’s also “a fiscal conservative issue, as well as kind of the other, controversial part of the abortion issue.”
According to information provided by the state health department, the number of abortions paid for with state Medicaid dollars in Alaska fell from a recent high of about 830 in fiscal year 2010 to about 510 in fiscal year 2013. While the cost fell from about $290,000 in 2010 to $191,000 in 2012, it rose to nearly $194,000 last year.
Jessica Cler, Alaska spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, said in a statement that her group would “continue to protect the constitutional rights of Alaskan women to access their full range of reproductive health care options.”
“If representatives and bureaucrats in Juneau were actually interested in reducing abortions, they should focus on increasing access to birth control and implementing the Medicaid Women’s Health Program,” she said. “These restrictions just serve as another example of government officials putting themselves between a woman and her doctor. Only a health care professional should determine what’s ‘medically necessary,’ not a collection of government employees in Juneau.”
The Senate Health and Social Services committee on Monday is scheduled to hear SB131, from Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, which she says would expand existing anti-discrimination laws to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
Gardner, in her sponsor statement, said the bill would protect Alaskans from discrimination in areas like employment, housing, credit based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The state historically has been at the forefront of civil rights legislation in giving women the right to vote in 1913 and passing anti-discrimination legislation protecting Alaska Natives in 1945, she said. Her bill “stands as an opportunity for Alaska to continue its strong tradition of recognition of human rights,” Gardner said.
At least three commissioners face confirmation hearings before lawmakers this week. On Thursday, the House State Affairs Committee plans to hold confirmation hearings for Administration Commissioner Curtis Thayer and Public Safety Commissioner Gary Folger. On Friday, Senate Resources plans a confirmation hearing for Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash.