Denying Abortion Coverage Through MaineCare Violates Maine Constitution

November 24, 2015

Portland, Maine – The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Maine, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America today filed a lawsuit seeking to restore abortion coverage for women who qualify for MaineCare. Current Maine Department of Health and Human Services policy bans abortion coverage under the state’s public insurance program, except in extremely limited circumstances, in violation of the Maine Constitution and state statute.

The lawsuit was filed in Cumberland County Superior Court on behalf of Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center, Maine Family Planning and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, three health care providers specializing in comprehensive reproductive and sexual health care, including abortion. The nonprofits provide care to 21,500 Mainers each year, more than half of them low income.

“Abortion is a protected right for all women, regardless of what type of insurance they have,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine. “This lawsuit aims to right the ship and to bring DHHS policy back in line with the Maine Constitution.”

MaineCare withholds coverage for abortion from eligible women, but will cover a full range of pregnancy-related care for women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. The lawsuit argues that, in doing so, the state interferes with a woman’s fundamental right to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy and discriminates against women who decide to have an abortion.

It contends that the ban on abortion coverage for qualified women who use MaineCare services violates the “liberty and safety clause” of the Maine Constitution, which provides that all people have an inherent right to pursue and obtain safety and happiness, as well as the “equal protection clause,” which holds that no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws.

“A woman cannot make a real decision about something as important as abortion if she can’t even afford to have one,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “A qualified woman should be able to use her Medicaid coverage for the medical care she needs, including abortion.”

The women impacted by this policy are, by definition, low-income. For many of them, the denial of funding for an abortion causes them to delay their abortions, at a potential risk to their health. Some women skip necessary expenses such as food, rent or heat in order to save enough to have an abortion. Since the majority of women who have abortions already have a child at home, this means entire families may suffer. Still other women have been forced to carry their pregnancies to term.

Maine health care providers, plaintiffs in this case, offer the following comments about the ban on MaineCare abortion coverage:

“We talk to women every day who are unable to come up with the money to pay for abortion care. For women in rural areas who must travel to get care, the need is even greater,” said Andrea Irwin, executive director of Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center. “As more Maine women and families experience poverty, with fewer safety net programs to support them, the need to act has become increasingly urgent. We can no longer accept a policy that treats the rights of women in Maine according to two different standards – whether you can afford to pay for your rights or not.”

“When a person needs to end a pregnancy, it is essential that professional medical care is accessible without barriers,” said Kate Brogan, vice president of public affairs at Maine Family Planning. “No one should be denied access to safe, quality health care simply because of their income.”

“When a woman finds out she’s pregnant, she will make a decision, ideally one that is best for herself, her health, and her family,” said Donna Burkett MD, medical director at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. “When she decides it’s better to end her pregnancy, which could be due to health concerns, she needs to be able to use her Medicaid benefits to get the care she needs. She should not be pressed into a decision, potentially one contrary to her well-being, due to lack of resources. All too often, we see a woman delay her decision, potentially jeopardizing her health, because she couldn’t afford to care for herself. ”

The complaint can be found here.

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