Alaska Court Strikes Law Limiting Medicaid Abortion Coverage

Thursday's decisions guarantees Medicaid funding for abortions for indigent Alaskans.

Thursday's decisions guarantees Medicaid funding for abortions for indigent Alaskans. Shutterstock

The Alaska Superior Court on Thursday struck down a state law and Department of Health and Social Services regulation that would have severely limited Medicaid coverage of abortions for low-income patients.

The regulation at issue sought to circumvent a 2001 decision by the Alaska Supreme Court that the state Medicaid program must cover abortions determined by a physician to be medically necessary. The ruling also redefined those conditions that would qualify as “medically necessary.”

Once the regulation was passed, reproductive rights advocates sued, arguing that the new rule unconstitutionally precludes all but the most severely ill women from qualifying for coverage of abortion services, in violation of the Alaska Constitution.

The regulation was temporarily blocked in February 2014, but shortly thereafter the Alaska legislature passed a statute defining a “medically necessary abortion” even more narrowly, and a challenge to the statute was added to the litigation.

Superior Court Judge John Suddock ordered Thursday that the state be blocked from implementing both the statute and the regulation, ruling both violated the equal protection clause of the Alaska Constitution by creating criteria for Medicaid coverage of abortions not imposed on any other service covered by health-care program.

“For far too long, politicians in Alaska have tried to sidestep constitutional protections that bar restricting access to abortion coverage,” said Joshua A. Decker, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, in a statement following the decision. “Today’s ruling upholds those constitutional safeguards and makes clear that a woman’s health shouldn’t have to suffer simply because she is poor.”

The law defined medically necessary abortions as those needed to avoid a threat of serious risk to a patient’s life or physical health from continuation of a pregnancy.

The law further limited that definition to include only a serious risk of death or “impairment of a major bodily function” caused by one of 21 different conditions, such as a coma, seizures, and epilepsy. It also included a more general category for “another physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy that places the woman in danger of death or major bodily impairment if an abortion is not performed.”

“Every Alaskan woman, regardless of income, should be able to make the pregnancy decision that’s best for herself and her family,” said Chris Charbonneau, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands. “We applaud the superior court for striking down these cruel restrictions on women’s health and rights that violate the Alaska Constitution.”