Sponsors of a proposed anti-abortion ballot measure say they’re focused on stopping taxpayer-funded abortions for low-income women on the Oregon Health Plan.
But the measure — which appears to have a good chance of qualifying for the November ballot — could also cut out abortion coverage in insurance plans covering hundreds of thousands of public employees in Oregon.
“This is really an attack on anybody with a state-funded health plan,” said Grayson Dempsey, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, one of the abortion-rights groups preparing to fight the measure, now known as Initiative Petition 1.
A group of anti-abortion activists have been working since 2012 to put a measure on the ballot to stop state funding for abortions. After falling short in the last three election cycles, they now claim to have collected 130,000 signatures and hope to have 150,000 by the July 6 deadline. They need 117,578 signatures from registered voters to qualify.
Jeff Jimerson, a Corvallis graphics designer who has spearheaded the initiative campaign, said any impact on public employees is unintentional.
“That was never on our radar,” he said. “We never targeted that.”
The proposed state constitutional amendment uses broad language that goes well beyond taxpayer funding of abortions for women receiving coverage under Medicaid, known here as the Oregon Health Plan.
The key sentence in the initiative says the state shall not spend public funds for any abortion, “except when medically necessary or as may be required by federal law.”
The Oregon attorney general’s office concluded in its official ballot explanation for IP 1 that, under the measure, “the state may not pay for insurance covering ‘abortion,’” except in limited circumstances such as to protect the life of the mother.
Portland lawyer Greg Chaimov, former chief counsel for the Oregon Legislature, said it is “pretty clear” that the measure would affect health insurance plans for public employees at the state level.
But he said it quickly gets murky after that.
“This is a measure that raises many more questions than the length of its text might suggest,” said Chaimov, who represented NARAL and the American Civil Liberties Union in the legal battle over the wording of the ballot title.
Among those, he said, is whether the measure would also affect public employees at the local level as well as private insurance plans that get public subsidies. For example, he said, it could potentially affect people who buy individual insurance policies through government-run exchanges.
Even if sponsors of the abortion measure weren’t targeting public employees, they don’t necessarily lean away from the idea that it could change their health plans.
“My policy preference is that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for abortion,” said Jimerson, one of the initiative’s chief sponsors. “What that means to public employees would have to be decided by the courts.”
The state of Oregon runs two boards that provide health insurance to public employees and that appear most clearly affected by the initiative if it were to become part of the Oregon Constitution. They are the Oregon Educators Benefit Board and the Public Employee Benefit Board, which together cover about 260,000 employees and dependents, according to Ali Hassoun, interim administrator of the two boards.
In addition to state government and university employees, those boards also cover almost all of the state’s school districts, community colleges and education service districts.
Currently, Oregon law requires insurers to provide reproductive services, including abortion, to patients at no cost. A first-trimester abortion generally costs between $400 and $600, abortion-rights advocates said. The Oregon Health Plan in the 2016-17 fiscal year paid for 4,086 abortions at a cost of nearly $2.3 million.
Emily McLain, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates, said low-income women on the Oregon Health Plan would face some of the most severe consequences under IP 1. But she said many public employees could also have to scramble to pay for an abortion on their own.
“This really impacts the economics of Oregon families and of individuals to be able to choose whether and when to become a parent,” McLain said.