Tension looms over state abortion insurance bill

OLYMPIA — A measure to require most insurers in Washington state to cover abortions will receive a hearing before a Senate committee, Majority Leader Rodney Tom pledged late Thursday, setting up a discussion on a measure that had been thrown into limbo a day earlier by another key senator.

The proposal has been a political hot-button in the state, as supporters say it would protect existing abortion coverage once new insurance rules come into effect under the federal health care overhaul.

Opponents, however, say the measure puts federal dollars at risk and threatens the religious freedoms of those who oppose abortion rights.

Proponents answer those concerns by pointing to language in the bill that would render moot any sections inconsistent with federal law and provisions granting protections to insurance carriers that object to covering abortion on religious grounds.

Tensions over the bill flared this week as Sen. Mike Padden, chair of the Law and Justice Committee, reversed an earlier decision to give the bill a hearing on Friday before his panel.

Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who opposes abortion rights, had agreed to allow his committee to discuss the measure, which he said had “flaws.”

“I’m not afraid to give this bill a good airing because the more facts that come out Friday, the better,” Padden said in a Monday news release. “People on both sides of the issue will get ample opportunity to make their points.”

On Wednesday afternoon, just after a hearing in Padden’s committee on a separate bill to require that minors seeking abortions first notify a parent, the item was pulled from the committee’s Friday agenda.

The move presents a challenge to Tom, a Medina Democrat and supporter of abortion rights who leads the Republican-dominated majority that holds a one-vote edge in the Senate. Tom said late Thursday that it was still to be determined when the bill will be heard and in which committee.

“We want to create a culture where we’re able to look at bills that people agree with and don’t agree with,” he said.

Padden on Thursday declined to say whether Senate Bill 5576 would receive a new hearing date in his committee. Padden spokesman Eric Campbell, contacted by email, declined to say why it had been pulled from Friday’s agenda.

It is doubtful that the bill would have emerged from the Republican-controlled Law and Justice Committee even if it had received a hearing.

An identical measure, Senate Bill 5009, was earlier referred to the Senate’s Health Care Committee, where it has not been scheduled for a hearing. The companion House Bill 1044 received a hearing last week and is scheduled to be voted out of the Health Care and Wellness Committee on Friday.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the prime sponsor of the Senate measure, said he was frustrated that it lost its hearing date but said he expected Tom to make good on his word that it would be heard.

“I’m a patient man,” said Hobbs. “Legislation takes time. But I can’t speak for the patience of the millions of Washington women who will be directly affected by the passage or failure of this legislation.”

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