Republican state Sen. Randi Becker of Eatonville says she’s scheduled a hearing for up to two hours duration to fully air the viewpoints over a proposal to formally require health insurers to include abortion coverage if they offer maternity benefits. Religious conservatives including the Family Policy Institute of Washington have rallied against the measure, claiming it infringes on employers that have deeply held religious beliefs.
But abortion-rights supporters say Washington voters are on record in support of the rights and that health-plan purchasers should not be denied the right to coverage if an employer dislikes it. Insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler says private insurers now cover abortion but he thinks the bill is needed to ensure that continues to happen.
The bill – dubbed the Reproductive Parity Act – has emerged as one of the more divisive issues this legislative session along with gun control, taxes, workers compensation and funding schools.
House Bill 1044 was passed on a virtual party-line vote last month in the House, and Becker previously said she would hear the measure soon after its passage. Becker chairs the Senate Health Care Committee and made the pledge after Republican Sen. Mike Padden of Spokane Valley first promised to hear a similar bill but backed out without an explanation.
“I was going to hear it early. Then we sat down and went through the whole thing and went through leadership. And we just decided that was the better avenue,” Becker said this week in the Senate wings, explaining the several week delay until April. ”We actually got to give the special interest groups more time and notice than if we heard it early. And that was a real big thing to me. I wanted people on both sides to be able to be here.”
Becker was still exploring whether to give the measure a full two-hour hearing, which is an unusually long airing. Meantime activists on both sides have been alerting supporters and gearing up to make their feelings known before the committee.
Whatever comes out of the hearing, there is a major question whether proponents – backed by Gov. Jay Inslee and at least two members of the Republican-backed Senate Majority Coalition Caucus – can force the bill to a Senate floor vote.
Supporters think the measure has enough votes to pass if it gets to the Senate floor. But Republican leader Mark Schoesler has said opponents have the votes to bottle it up in Rules Committee, drawing complaints from Inslee that lawmakers should not impede democracy.
The choice of an April 1 hearing date initially drew speculation from Senate Democratic leader Ed Murray a week ago that it could be either “a mistake” or some kind of insult to have it on April Fools Day.
“That’s not the case,” Becker said. We’re hearing it. It’s solid. It’s set.”