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Senate measure also takes on US law

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By Jim Saunders
4/29/2010 © Health News Florida

Wading into a debate that caused a massive uproar in Washington, state senators could vote today to tighten abortion restrictions on Florida women who get insurance under a new federal health-reform law.
 
That was a little-noticed part of a health-bill amendment tacked on Wednesday. It was overshadowed by a provision that would require women to undergo -- and pay for -- ultrasound before an abortion in most circumstances. 

The ultrasound requirement got more attention because it would take effect this year and would affect all women seeking abortions; the other part of the amendment would affect women who ultimately buy insurance through the health exchanges to be set up by 2014 under the new federal health law.

(See this article for more on the ultrasound provision.)

The Senate still needs to pass the broader health-care bill --- possibly as early as today --- and send it to the House for consideration. The annual legislative session ends Friday.

The proposal dealing with abortion coverage in health exchanges goes further than a restriction that Congress and President Barack Obama worked out last month to help clear the way for passing the reform law. That controversial restriction will prevent the use of federal funds to pay for abortion coverage, but will allow women to pay separately for such coverage in their health plans.

The Senate amendment that emerged Wednesday would bar abortion coverage in policies "purchased in whole or in part with state or federal funds through an exchange.'' 

The definition of federal funds includes tax credits that many small businesses will receive to help pay for employee insurance. Abortion-rights advocates say that would effectively prevent those small businesses from offering policies that include abortion coverage.

Merritt Island Republican Mike Haridopolos, the sponsor of the proposal, said the federal health law allows states to take such steps.

"We choose not to have tax dollars pay for abortions,'' Haridopolos said.

But critics blasted the proposal, which came in the final days of the legislative session and had not gone through Senate committees. Miami Beach Democrat Dan Gelber called it "irresponsible in the extreme.''

"This is a mistake,'' Gelber said. "It is a stain on this legislature.''

Senators also tacked other amendments onto the bill to target the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). One states that it is the "public policy" of Florida that residents not be required to buy health insurance, an attack on the so-called individual mandate. 

Along with declaring it "public policy'' that Floridians shouldn't be required to buy health insurance, lawmakers say the bill could bolster a federal lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bill McCollum that challenges the reform law. Senate Democrats, however, described the lawsuit Wednesday as "frivolous.''

The issue of abortion coverage almost derailed the push by congressional Democrats and President Obama to pass the massive ACA. In the end, however, they reached agreement on a plan to avoid using federal funds to pay for abortions.

The health exchanges are critical to the reform law as they are designed to give individuals and small businesses more purchasing power. Individuals and small businesses often lack power to pool risks, which drives up their insurance costs.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.