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Study Shows Abortion Funding Rules Would Not Apply to High-Risk Pools

Kathleen Sebelius

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in Washington. (AP)

A newly released congressional report found that abortion restrictions attached to the health care overhaul would not apply to high-risk insurance pools run at the state level, prompting Republican senators to urge the administration to issue new rules. 

Thirteen senators wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Wednesday urging her to "act immediately" to bar states operating the high-risk pools from covering elective abortions. 

"Absent such contractual requirements, it will be necessary for Congress to modify the current law," they wrote, asking for a response by Friday. 

The senators referenced a Congressional Research Service report dated July 23 that found the health care law, the subsequent executive order on abortion restrictions and the contracts themselves do not explicitly prohibit the high-risk pools from covering abortions with federal money. 

The high-risk program, called the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, was meant to help those denied coverage over pre-existing conditions until the broader provisions of the law go into effect in 2014. The law set aside $5 billion in federal subsidies for the program, which is supposed to be either administered by the state or the Health and Human Services Department. 

Anti-abortion groups have been on high alert over the past few weeks as individual states began to announce their policies on the high-risk pools. Several groups claimed that Pennsylvania, which was approved for $160 million in federal funds, was opening the door for taxpayer-funded abortion coverage. Though the state's policy announcement made no reference to abortion and the policy itself says "elective abortions" are not covered, anti-abortion groups said there was too much wiggle room. The National Right to Life Committee said that because "elective abortion" is not a legal term, any abortion procedure legal in the state could be covered under the plan. 

The Pennsylvania Insurance Department, though, said the state "would not and could not" use federal dollars for elective abortion coverage and has no intention of doing so. 

A recent HHS statement also said abortions "will not be covered" under the high-risk plans except in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is in danger. 

But the senators wrote in their letter that the department's comments "do not have the force of law and will not prohibit the use of funds for these services." 

According to the HHS, new guidance will be issued pertaining to restrictions on high-risk pool coverage. 

The CRS report said that while the HHS statement does not amount to a "formal policy issuance," it is "reasonable" to expect the department will issue new regulations. 

"The secretary's seemingly broad authority to establish other requirements for high-risk pools may also arguably allow for a restriction on elective abortion coverage in the high risk pools," the report said. 

The letter was signed by: Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Mike Johanns, R-Neb.; Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; John Thune, R-S.D.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; Chuck Grassley, Iowa; and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.