California lawmakers prepare to protect abortion access, starting with eliminating copays
Ignited by threats to abortion rights across the country, California lawmakers are preparing countermeasures to expand access for those who live both in and out of the state, focusing first on resurrecting a bill that would eliminate costly copays for services.
The added urgency for abortion access legislation comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark decision that barred states from banning abortions nearly 50 years ago. Last week, the Supreme Court declined to block a Texas law that banned terminating pregnancies after six weeks.
Abortion rights advocates counted one win Thursday when the federal government announced it would allow patients to receive abortion pills prescribed for up to 10 weeks of pregnancy by mail, although some states will continue to have their own restrictions on mailing the medication.
In the upcoming session that begins in January, California legislators hope to push forward Senate Bill 245 by Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), which would put an end to out-of-pocket costs paid by those seeking abortions that on average range from $300 for a medication abortion to nearly $900 for a procedural abortion, according to the California Health Benefits Review Program.
The legislation was shelved earlier this year after it passed the Senate and stalled in an Assembly committee, but supporters said the bill is expected to be revived next month and could be quickly moved through the Legislature and placed on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
“Given what we have seen unfold in the last three months, I think there is a new urgency for this bill,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). “I am optimistic it will get a good hearing in the Assembly and hit the governor’s desk.”
A divided Supreme Court refused Friday to block a Texas law that has banned most abortions in the state.
The bill was placed on hold over the summer in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which considers thousands of bills each year that cost money and decides which pass without explanation.
Gonzalez titled the bill “the Abortion Access Act” and said it is more important than ever as “abortion rights are under extreme threat in our country.”
Renewed interest in the bill was sparked by Newsom and legislative leaders, who in September asked Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California and dozens of other supporters to develop a plan for the state to become a sanctuary for anyone denied abortion services in other parts of the country.
The coalition, the California Future of Abortion Council, recommended 45 changes earlier this month to improve access for residents and create additional capacity should states outlaw abortion, including exhorting lawmakers to prioritize SB 245 and get it past the finish line.
Newsom has said that some of the other recommendations in the report will be included in his January budget proposal. “We take seriously the recommendations made in this report as California continues to lead the nation in protecting such fundamental rights,” Newsom said in a statement.
California is one of six states that currently require abortions to be covered by health insurance, but those who support SB 245 say copayments or cost-sharing required by some health plans can be a substantial barrier.
The bill, which would apply to private health plans regulated by the state, is opposed by those providers and insurers, many of which would be forced to absorb the costs, and faith-based groups, including the California Catholic Conference, which oppose abortion. Antiabortion groups opposing the bill argued that lawmakers should prioritize eliminating all copays for pregnancy and fertility treatment instead of selectively choosing abortions.
“When families are struggling to put food on the table and pay rent, it is absurd for the state to focus on expanding abortion when the real needs of families for basic necessities remain unmet,” Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said in a statement after the release of the Future of Abortion Council’s report. “California doesn’t need more abortion. It needs to support women and help them be the mothers they want to be.”
U.S. health regulators are lifting long-standing restrictions on how women obtain the abortion pill.
Any budget or legislative proposals stemming from the abortion council’s recommendations will draw opposition from the Catholic conference, which called the report “disappointing and deceptive.”
“In a state as diverse as California, with a budget surplus of $31 billion, why aren’t we exploring options that genuinely empower women instead of encouraging the ‘quick fix’ of abortion, which does nothing to solve underlying concerns?” Domingo said.
Atkins said the state’s current tax surplus can help with expanding abortion services but that funding is not limited to taxpayer dollars. She said nonprofits and community organizations have for years raised money to help women who can’t afford abortions or need travel money to obtain one and she anticipates additional opportunities for public-private partnerships.
“This is a call to action for those who support abortion and reproductive rights to double down on the support we have given for decades,” Atkins said.
Proposals from the Future of Abortion Council’s report call for additional money to be set aside to help cover travel costs for appointments because existing funds are likely to be strained if there is an influx of out-of-state patients.
According to the reproductive rights research group Guttmacher Institute, California could experience a 3,000% increase in people traveling to the state for abortion care if the U.S. Supreme Court weakens or overturns Roe. The institute predicted 26 states would ban abortion if the precedent doesn’t stand.
The report also recommended that California strengthen laws protecting abortion providers and those who travel to California to end a pregnancy from criminal or civil penalties. The Texas law banning abortions after six weeks also allows private citizens to sue anyone who performs or abets an abortion, prompting concern among providers in the state.
The report earned praise from California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who said that the state needs “to continue to protect and expand access to care, including abortion.”
“I’m proud of California and the work we’re leading to advance reproductive rights — not just for those who live here, but for those who need to travel here to exercise their rights,” Bonta said in a statement. “There is no question about it, reproductive freedom is under a near-constant, coordinated attack in our country.”
While other states restrict abortion and the Supreme Court weighs Roe vs. Wade, California is preparing to serve the country’s abortion patients.
Jodi Hicks, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, said it’s critical that the state be prepared if abortions are banned in other parts of the country for millions of people.
In the Future of Abortion report, the group recommended that the Newsom administration work with like-minded states to offer medication abortion through telehealth appointments to patients in parts of the country with abortion restrictions. The report urges California to take the lead in forming that coalition to address potential legal issues in providing abortion pills to travelers from out of state.
Currently, 19 states have bans or restrictions on the use of telehealth for obtaining abortion pills, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
“People will still need abortion care regardless of what laws are passed in other states,” Hicks said. “Half the country will take on the burden of providing care to those patients.”
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