Capitol: Lawmakers spar over women’s healthcare


February 7th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – The Legislature advanced a bill today designed to increase access to birth control, but only after adding an amendment that some senators say will make the bill ineffective. Also at the Capitol, the fight was renewed to extend prenatal care coverage to low-income women and illegal immigrants.

The federal government currently offers states money to provide birth control services for people at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. That means someone in a family of four with income up to almost $43,000 would be eligible.

Sen. Fulton amended the proposal to prohibit state funds from paying for organizations like Planned Parenthood, that provides abortions. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Some Nebraska lawmakers are pushing for the state to apply for that federal funding, and expand its existing coverage of birth control services. On Tuesday, Nebraska senators altered a proposal to do that with an amendment offered by Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton. That would prohibit any funds from going to an organization, such as Planned Parenthood, that provides elective abortions.

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr said that would violate federal law, which requires that people should be able to get medical assistance from any institution qualified to perform the service.

Of 27 clinics across the state that currently provide birth control services, two are run by Planned Parenthood. After Fulton’s amendment was adopted, Omaha Sen. Brenda Council, a supporter of the bill, urged her colleagues to vote against it. “Otherwise your vote affirmatively for this amendment and the underlying bill constitutes a sham,” Council said. “And I wouldn’t think that any of you would want to be participants in a sham.”

Sen. Campbell said expanding access to to family planning services is an essential element of women's healthcare. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Fulton denied that his amendment was intended to kill the bill, even though he doesn’t support it. “If it’s inconclusive, or if it leaves wiggle room such that renders LB540 ineffectual, I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “I think the language is fairly obvious.”

Fulton offered to work with supporters of the bill on language before the next round of debate. Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, chairwoman of the committee that introduced the bill, said she would welcome the opportunity.

“I have to say colleagues that I have persevered in LB540,” Campbell said, “and would like the opportunity to sit down with all parties. We very much need to address the eligibility of women in this program. It’s not that the program goes away, or that we don’t have one. We have one right now, but it is limiting.”

Currently, publically-funded family planning services are limited to women with breast or cervical cancer, those who are disabled, and those who are pregnant for a time after they deliver. The eligibility kicks in at various percentages of the poverty level. Those below 58 percent of the poverty level are eligible in all cases. Senators gave first-round approval to the bill on a vote of 28-5.

In a related matter, a coalition of education, health and faith groups renewed a push for extending prenatal care to low-income women not eligible for Medicaid, including illegal immigrants. A bill to do that is currently in the Health and Human Services Committee. A similar measure failed two years ago after Gov. Dave Heineman threatened a veto. But at a news conference where a host of groups announced their support, Julie Schmit Albin of Nebraska Right to Life said senators have the ability to overcome a veto.

“It just boils down to whether our pro-life members of this body (the Legislature) will stand up and take up this challenge,” she said.

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