ANNAPOLIS – A conference committee Wednesday rejected a House proposal to limit state-funded abortions for new Medicaid recipients under a bill that expands the number of eligible Marylanders.
The agreement on the Children’s Health Program follows the abortion language that was hammered out in the fiscal 1999 state budget approved by lawmakers earlier this week.
Pro-life groups were, nonetheless, angered by the conference committee’s refusal to take a tougher stand on abortion language in the health bill.
“It was a back-door way of expanding abortion funding,” said Pat Kelly, spokeswoman for the Maryland Catholic Conference. “It’s just something this General Assembly should not have done.”
She said lawmakers who may have voted against increased state funding of abortions will be reluctant to do so now, in what could be seen as a vote against a bill for children’s health.
The Children’s Health Program, backed by Gov. Parris Glendening, would expand Medicaid coverage to Maryland families with an income of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
The Senate approved the Glendening administration version of the bill, expanding coverage to 200 percent of the poverty level. But the House capped eligibility at 185 percent of the poverty level, with subsidies for those earning between 185 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
The House also amended the bill so that new recipients could only get taxpayer-funded abortions under stricter federal Medicaid guidelines. The federal government pays for an abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.
The Senate had no such abortion restriction. It would have allowed the new recipients to get abortions under the state’s current, more liberal, regulations. Besides rape, incest and life of the mother, Maryland pays for abortions when the mother’s mental or physical health is threatened or if the fetus is severely deformed.
The conference committee Wednesday agreed to accept the Senate language on both the abortion issue and the higher income levels.
Pro-choice supporters were pleased that no new restrictions were placed on Medicaid recipients, but said the issue should never have been in dispute in the first place.
“If you’re going to pay for greater insurance coverage, then you have to be consistent with the current program,” said Kathleen Nieberding-Ryan, a legislative consultant for the National Organization for Women.
Had the conference committee kept the House abortion amendments in the health bill, contradicting the budget abortion language, the conflict might have wound up in the courts.
Del. Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel and one of the six conferees, said the conference committee got conflicting opinions from the Attorney General’s Office over which bill would have prevailed.
“I think if you put different language in this bill than what’s already in the budget … you’re going to cause concern because no one’s going to know exactly what exists out there,” said Busch.