Lost Your Job Because of COVID-19? Republicans Want to Restrict Your Abortion Coverage.

Reproductive health advocates call the Republican legislation even worse than the discriminatory Hyde Amendment, which for decades has eroded low-income people's access to abortion care. 

[Photo: Rep. Jim Jordan speaks during a hearing as Rep. Mike Conaway listens on.]
House Republicans, including Reps. Jim Jordan (OH) and Mike Conaway (TX), introduced the “Protecting Life in Crisis Act,” which would prevent COVID-19 health-care funding from covering abortion services. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Congressional Republicans want to make sure abortion care won’t be covered for laid-off workers benefiting from federal COVID-19 health-care funding.

As the United States reaches unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to help laid off and furloughed workers keep their health insurance. The proposal, which is included in the $3 trillion stimulus plan unveiled this week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), would fully subsidize the cost of COBRA, the program that allows laid-off workers to stay on their former employer’s insurance plan if they can pay the full premiums.

On May 8, several dozen House Republicans responded by introducing the “Protecting Life in Crisis Act,” which would prevent any federal COVID-19 health-care funding from going towards COBRA premiums for insurance plans that cover abortion.

A House vote on the latest stimulus plan, known as the HEROES Act, is expected on Friday.

Reproductive health advocates call the anti-choice proposal even worse than the discriminatory Hyde Amendment, which has eroded low-income people’s access to abortion care for decades.

“The Hyde Amendment is problematic, [and] has been for the 45-plus years that it has been around. … Adding language and abortion restrictions onto a new funding package create[s] new abortion restrictions,” Jamille Fields Allsbrook, director of women’s health and rights at the Center for American Progress, told Rewire.News.

Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration have prioritized anti-choice demands throughout the fiscal response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Here you have anti-choice members seeking to take advantage of something that, quite frankly, has nothing to do with abortion … and placing it onto a funding relief package,” Fields Allsbrook said.

Under COBRA, a former (or deceased) employee and their family is eligible for “continuation coverage” that allows them to temporarily retain their current health-care benefits, but typically at a much higher cost. The proposed stimulus package aims to fully subsidize the costs of COBRA premiums, a path that some have criticized as a concession to insurance industry lobbying.

One hundred and fifty-three million people in the United States rely on employer-sponsored health insurance. The high cost of COBRA means that many who lose their job are unable to afford to use it. That underscores the need for Medicaid access and plans on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace that may suit their needs, Fields Allsbrook said.

It’s among the sharpest intersections between the COVID-19 unemployment crisis and public health. “With the pandemic, many are learning the struggles of having their insurance linked to their job,” Dr. Kristyn Brandi, an OB/GYN in New Jersey and board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Rewire.News.

New research from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that anti-choice restrictions on COVID-19 stimulus funding could prove difficult to implement for COBRA subsidies. According to Kaiser, most employers don’t know if their health insurance plan covers abortion care, complicating how unemployed or furloughed workers would receive COBRA subsidies if Republican efforts are successful.

For those with employee-sponsored health insurance, abortion care coverage can depend on a number of factors. Ten percent of workers with employer-sponsored health care work for a firm that excludes abortion care under some or all circumstances. Abortion coverage in an employer-sponsored insurance plan comes down to an employer’s policies and beliefs, the size of a business, and state and federal requirements.

According to the Kaiser report, firms with 5,000 or more employees are the most likely to have asked their insurer or a third-party administrator to exclude abortion or limit the circumstances under which it can be covered.

With restrictions like the one many congressional Republicans want to include in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package, “you’re just adding a new crisis on top of an existing crisis that we’re already managing” Fields Allsbrook said.

Both Fields Allsbrook and Brandi stressed the importance of demanding legislators ensure any relief package centers the needs of vulnerable populations, including people who can get pregnant.

“Now’s the time to be expanding health-care access as a general principle, not limiting it,” Fields Allsbrook told Rewire.News. “The same holds true for abortion coverage.”