The Arkansas Senate voted Thursday to prohibit insurers in new markets set up under the federal health care law from offering coverage for abortions except in cases where the mother's life is at stake — a move that opponents say will make it virtually impossible for women to get abortion coverage.



 

The Arkansas Senate voted Thursday to prohibit insurers in new markets set up under the federal health care law from offering coverage for abortions except in cases where the mother's life is at stake — a move that opponents say will make it virtually impossible for women to get abortion coverage.

The Senate voted 27-8 to approve strict limits on when abortion would be covered in the new insurance markets that will be set up starting in 2014 under the federal health care overhaul. The legislation would prohibit abortion coverage by insurers in those markets even in cases of rape and incest.

Coverage for abortions could be obtained through separate supplemental policies.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, said it was aimed at preventing publicly funded abortions in Arkansas in the new system. Under the reform law, some people participating in the new networks will receive tax credits to subsidize their health insurance coverage.

"This is about tax dollars and Arkansans have said overwhelmingly we don't want to spend tax dollars on abortions," Bledsoe told the Senate.

Opponents called the measure too harsh because it didn't include exemptions for rape and incest. Medicaid recipients can receive abortions in cases of rape or incest.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said the restriction was unreasonable because women don't know if they will need a supplemental policy.

"Nobody plans to have an abortion," Elliott said. "Nobody plans to be a victim of rape or incest."

Bledsoe said she didn't exempt rape or incest because an amendment in the state Constitution bars public funding for abortions, except to save the life of the mother. That amendment, however, is trumped by federal law.

Bledsoe's bill now heads to the House. A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe said he was still studying the language of the bill and did not have a position on it yet.

The bill is the second attempt this week to reject or alter parts of the health care overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law. A House committee on Tuesday rejected legislation that would have prohibited any laws requiring Arkansans to purchase health insurance. The health insurance mandate was a key provision in the health reform law.

Bledsoe's bill is similar to restrictions several other states have adopted or are considering in response to the federal health care law.

Also Thursday, a House panel advanced legislation that would keep the state from paying attorney's fees for private attorneys that indigent defendants hire on their own.

The House Judiciary Committee recommended passage of the bill, which would allow the state to pay other expenses for private attorneys if they met conditions set by the Public Defender Commission. The bill put forward by Rep. John Edwards would not bar the state from paying for private attorneys appointed to a case by a judge.

Edwards' bill was in response to a state Supreme Court order for the state Public Defender Commission to pay the expenses for the private attorney representing Abdulhakim Muhammad, who's on trial in the shooting death of a soldier outside a Little Rock recruiting center. The court said state law did allow the commission to pay for expenses of a privately retained attorney.

While the bill won't change the effect of that ruling, Edwards said he believed the law needed more clarity following the Muhammad case.

"It's forward looking," Edwards, D-Little Rock, told reporters. "My intent is to provide some oversight with the state on how funding for expenses is carried forward."

The House Public Transportation Committee advanced legislation barring drivers from using hand-held cell phones in a school zone during school hours. The proposal by Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock, would allow the use of hands-free cell phones and navigation devices.

Both proposals now head to the House for a vote.

The House and Senate adjourned Thursday and planned to return to the Capitol on Monday.