State health plan to restrict abortion coverage

Georgia’s health department waded into two thorny issues on Thursday that set a sharply different course on abortion policy and paves the way for a new insurance plan for the state’s 650,000 public employees.

The Department of Community Health voted 5-3 on a healthcare plan design that would restrict state employee insurance policies from covering abortions. The move was backed by Gov. Nathan Deal after lawmakers failed to pass similar legislation this year.

Commissioner Clyde Reese also said he expected to name Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia the winner of a lucrative healthcare contract on Friday over the objections of the two current insurance providers, who claim the chaotic bidding process unfairly deprived them of a chance.

Both moves carry vast implications and will likely spawn more legal challenges. Already, UnitedHealthcare and Cigna have claimed in court the state has unfairly spurned their bids. And legal analysts say the abortion changes could raise constitutional challenges about the governor’s powers.

The plan’s supporters say a host of changes could save the state some $200 million, giving lawmakers more leeway to consider teacher pay raises or other election-year bonuses during next year’s legislative session.

But some lawmakers may be more squeamish about the abortion changes. A plan to ban state insurance providers from covering abortion failed to pass during the final day of the legislative session, and Deal vowed to use his executive powers to press the issue.

The changes would ban elective abortion coverage for the roughly 650,000 people covered by the State Health Benefit Plan except if the life of the mother is in danger. The number covered includes workers, retirees and dependents.

State data from last year showed that a declining number of women covered by the state plan were receiving abortions.

Some 545 patients under the state plan sought abortions in fiscal year 2009, a figure that dropped to 447 in 2010 and 366 in 2011. Net insurance payments for the procedure fell from about $343,000 to $213,000 in that span.

Reese, the department’s leader, said that the Blue Cross proposal was the best the state received and would help relieve state workers of the “double whammy” of the recession and higher health care costs.

“The plan affords us the opportunity to regain solid fiscal footing,” he said. “We also feel that it will allow our members the opportunity to have reduced premiums for the same time in a while.”

Deal praised the board’s vote, saying that it ensures “that state taxpayers aren’t paying for a procedure that many find morally objectionable.”

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