While hundreds of Connecticut residents rallied in New Haven against abortion and federal requirements that religious organizations cover their employees' contraceptives, officials at the State Capitol complex took up a measure on whether the insurance everyone will be required to purchase under the federal health law will cover the procedures.
The panel unanimously decided that abortion is an essential benefit by eliminating the plan that prohibits elective abortion coverage, and that it will be covered in the plan they select.
"This issue is favorably resolved for all women now in Connecticut," said Jennifer Jaff, executive director of the group Advocacy for Patients with Chronic Illness and a member of an advisory committee of the Insurance Exchange Health Plan. "Stripping women of elective abortions is not a tenable option."
Starting in 2014, all health plans nationwide must cover certain essential health benefits, and each state will determine how far those minimum levels of coverage will go.
In Connecticut, every private health insurance plan already covers elective abortions, said Victoria Veltri, the state's healthcare advocate. However, for this new essential benefits plan, the state must create a model -- using the state employee plan, the federal employee plan or a private plan -- for what will be covered. The federal health reform law requires any health plan that covers abortion to collect the actual cost in premiums from those who would like the service to be covered.
Had this state advisory panel selected the federal employees' health plan, which does not cover elective abortions, then business and individuals who purchased this essential benefits package would not receive abortion coverage.
Whether abortion coverage is an essential benefit is likely to spark lively debates throughout the country as other states decide -- as they must by the end of the summer -- which plan they will choose.
Connecticut's advisory panel is ahead of others on making this decision, members said Friday.
"It's a matter of health. We wanted to protect a woman's right to chose," said Veltri. "I didn't suspect that this would be an issue here."
Others thought there would at least be some pushback.
"I was surprised that that was so easy," Robert McLean of the Connecticut State Medical Society told Jaff after the vote. No one spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Peter Wolfgang, the leader of the Family Institute, a conservative advocacy group, said Friday evening that he is upset that such an important decision was made as hundreds of people were rallying in New Haven, and thousands in dozens of cities across the U.S. -- against a birth control mandate and abortion.
"The pro-abortion movement has their tentacles wrapped around state government. The devil is clearly in the details when implementing the new health law," he said.
Eric Scheidler, executive director of Pro-Life Action League, which organized the rallies across the U.S. Friday, said he's also concerned that the costs of these abortions will be transferred to other policyholders.
"That's a real problem when you compel someone to pay for what they consider homicide," he said.
The federal law requires nearly everyone to have insurance by 2014. If the Supreme Court strikes down the federal law -- a decision is expected later this month -- then state legislators would need to amend state law to do away with the essential benefits package.
There is no state law that requires residents to purchase the essential benefits package, as does the federal law.
During the meeting Friday, concerns of costs also drove the decision to reject the federal employee health plan. Many things panel members wanted to see covered -- and are also mandated by state law, such as in vitro fertilization and Lyme disease -- are not covered in the federal employee plan either.
"You can't add a la carte," said Bob Carey, the state's consultant for implementing some of the health reforms. "The state would have to pay for that margin of difference."