Health Dept. releases abortion figures

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2010

JUNEAU - Alaska's Health Department said Thursday that 664 abortions were funded last year under a state-supported health insurance program for low-income pregnant women and children.

Gov. Sean Parnell vetoed an expansion of the Denali KidCare program earlier this month, saying he had recently learned that it paid for abortions.

The decision drew harsh criticism from some Democrats, who accused the Republican governor up for election of playing politics with children and families. He fired back, saying they were making it an issue for their own fundraisers.

In issuing the veto, Parnell couldn't say how much of the expanded program would have paid for abortions, saying instead that "hundreds" were currently being paid for by the funds.

Sen. Bettye Davis, an Anchorage Democrat who pushed the expansion, said information she had received from the department indicated numbers "in the teens."

The number from the health department stemmed from hand-counting case files, spokeswoman Cathy Stadem said. They showed the number of abortion funded through the program from 2005 to 2009 ranged from 636 to 689, with 664 reported last year.

That's the same number the department listed in 2009 for "abortion-related services," a category that includes counseling, ultrasounds or other services that don't necessarily end in abortion.

Stadem said it was a coincidence, but Davis aide Richard Benavides said he was "a little skeptical" of the number and would like to see details on the breakdown of that category.

Davis did not immediately respond to a message left with her office.

Alaska's Supreme Court has held that the state must fund medically necessary abortions if it funds medically necessary services for others with financial needs. Those funded through Denali KidCare would have to have been deemed medically necessary by a doctor, though the department said that term, as it applies to abortions under the program, hasn't been defined in law, through regulation or by a court decision.

State Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat seeking his party's nomination for governor, has called on Parnell to reconsider the veto, a request Parnell has rebuffed.

"Standing between a woman and her doctor is irresponsible, particularly when the stance also includes denying 1,200 children access to affordable medical care," said French, whose campaign earlier this month issued a fundraising appeal citing the veto as an example of the need for change in leadership.

There were 1,875 abortions statewide last year, the department said, citing figures from the vital statistics bureau.

The bill Parnell vetoed would have raised the qualifying income eligibility standard from 175 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. By one estimate, that would have covered an additional 218 pregnant women and 1,277 children.

The department said total enrollment in the program last year was 55,754.

The program's budget last year was about $216.6 million, with about $384,000 of that spent on abortion-related services. The department estimated the expansion would have added about $13,000 to the line item for abortions or abortion-related services.

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