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Senate panel tightens abortion coverage

Two measures that would bar public money from subsidizing abortion coverage in Florida in nearly all cases, even indirectly, passed the Senate Health Regulation Committee on Monday.

SB 1414 would apply to policies sold on the health-insurance exchange that will be set up by 2014 as part of the federal health law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Stephen R. Wise, R-Jacksonville, would block the purchase of policies that include abortion if public money is involved in any way – as a subsidy for the person who is shopping for coverage, for example, or as a business tax credit.

The other measure that passed, a proposed amendment to the state Constitution, would prohibit any public funding for abortion unless the patient herself would die without one. It is sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

Unlike Sen. Wise’s bill, it would make no exception for cases involving rape or incest. Flores explained: “If you believe it’s a life, you need to protect it.”

But some senators found the omission in the amendment, Joint Resolution 1538, troubling. Two said that they would support it in committee with the understanding that those two exceptions must be added, and with their votes it passed 7 to 5.

“Before I vote for this on the floor, that’s going to have to be in there,” warned Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg.

If the constitutional amendment is approved by the Legislature and the voters, it would apply to coverage for state employees and local-government workers throughout Florida, such as teachers, police and firefighters.

Neither of the measures would allow for any public money to go toward coverage of abortion when the patient’s health is deteriorating from the pregnancy – as long as she is not likely to die -- or when the fetus is deformed or terminally ill.

The health-exchange bill would have the effect of taking away the kind of insurance now held by 86 percent of those covered by employer-sponsored plans, said Stephanie Kunkel of Planned Parenthood.

Wise said those who want insurance for abortions could take a separate policy, or rider. But Sen. Eleanor Sobol, D-Hollywood, said states that have tried that approach found that companies don’t offer them.

Sen. Mike Bennett said he personally opposes abortion but couldn’t support measures that take away personal freedom.

“I have a problem as a Republican telling companies what they can and can’t offer and telling consumers what they can and can’t buy,” said Bennett, R-Bradenton.

The ACA allows states to set up their own health-insurance exchange or to use one provided by the federal government. Florida officials, who are suing to have the ACA thrown out, have not said which path they will follow if they are unsuccessful.

Wise’s bill passed 8 to 4.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.