ANCHORAGE - Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell announced Thursday he will veto expansion of a health insurance program for low-income families because he recently found out the program pays for abortions.
"I oppose expanding the government's role in funding abortions," Parnell said at a news conference outlining vetoes to the operating and capital budgets.
An estimated 18,000 children in Alaska, about 9 percent of the residents age 18 and under, are uninsured. The Alaska version of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, Denali KidCare, covers 7,900 Alaska children. Expansion would have added 1,277 more children and 225 pregnant women, according to state Sen. Betty Davis, the Anchorage Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Davis learned of the veto in a phone call from the governor 25 minutes before the news conference. She said she was unhappy. Democrats hoping to replace Parnell as governor were less restrained.
"I'm stunned and outraged," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage. The program pays for abortions deemed medically necessary, he said, not elective abortions. Parnell had backed Davis' bill since October.
"Now, suddenly, he's vetoing money for health care for children because of a few abortions," French said. "I can't understand it."
"It's amazingly cold hearted," said former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, who's also seeking the Democratic nomination. "Real men don't pick on kids."
The bill would increase the qualifying income eligibility standard to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, up from 175 percent.
Alaska was one of five states that funded the Children's Health Insurance Program below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Davis's office said the program remains one of the least costly medical assistance programs in the state with full coverage, including dental, for children and pregnant women.
Parnell said that after the legislative session, which ended in April, he learned for the first time that Denali KidCare paid for abortions.
"For years, I have thought Denali KidCare provides useful services, and indeed it does," he said. "I was under the mistaken impression that what it provided were just the usual health care services that that we all enjoy at the doctors."
When he learned the program would mean more abortions, he changed his position, he said.
"A leader who finds out new information must change his or her position and must do so as humbly, but as openly, as possible. That's what I'm doing," Parnell said.
The governor said he could not say how much of the expanded program would have paid for abortions but "there are hundreds of abortions being paid for by these funds."
Davis disputed that. Her information from the state Department of Health and Social indicated the number of abortions paid for by the program was "in the teens."
An agency spokeswoman said the department would not respond before Friday.