Veterans life insurance

VA pushes ahead with abortion care as lawsuits and Republican opposition loom

On Friday, the Department of Veterans Affairs pushed ahead with its plan to offer abortion counseling and services at its hospitals for the first time to veterans, spouses and dependents, as abortion is banned nationwide. country and the Republicans promise to block this decision.

In an interim final rule published in the Federal Register, the department officially announced that it will offer abortion services to people covered by its health care system in cases of rape, incest, and danger to life or health. from the mother. VA Secretary Denis McDonough said medical services related to abortion would protect the lives and health of veterans.

The VA’s decision under the Biden administration comes amid a heated national debate over abortion rights following a landmark Supreme Court decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade. Republican-dominated state governments across the country moved quickly to ban or restrict abortion rights available since the early 1970s under Roe, and Democrats are scrambling to bolster access to medical care. .

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“Unless VA removes its existing bans on abortion care and makes it clear that necessary abortion care is permitted, these veterans will face serious threats to their lives and health,” according to the published rule, which was signed by McDonough.

McDonough said the law does not prohibit the department from providing abortions, but did not offer the services solely because they were not included in the department’s package of medical benefits released in 1999.

With the rule released, the VA plans to begin developing and implementing the benefit as soon as possible, officials said. This would include studying its capabilities and training staff.

“It is critical that this rule be released and take effect immediately to ensure pregnant veterans and CHAMPVA recipients have access to this important care,” the officials wrote in the notice.

The Hyde Amendment limits federal funding for abortions for reasons other than rape, incest, and injury to the mother’s life. Included in the Department of Health and Human Services funding bill each year, the restrictions apply to Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the Indian Health Service and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

However, other federal programs, including Tricare, the Peace Corps and the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, have instituted similar restrictions.

The VA argues that it has no similar legal requirement. Under the interim rule, the VA believes by law that the secretary can decide what medical care and services veterans need, and McDonough determined that abortions and abortion counseling meet standards of care. .

Republicans have vowed to block the VA’s new policy, arguing that the department is prohibited by law from covering abortions. Republicans cite the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, which ordered the VA to provide reproductive health care, except “infertility services, abortions, or pregnancy care,” unless that care are required due to a service-related condition.

It’s unclear exactly what the GOP will do, with a spokesman for Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, telling Wednesday that he and his colleagues ” were evaluating [their] options – including legislative options – for moving forward. »

Separately, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall suggested this week that he would prosecute VA doctors who perform abortions in conflict with state law. Alabama has banned almost all abortions except when the mother’s life is in danger. The state has no exceptions for rape or incest.

“I have no intention of abdicating my duty to enforce the Protection of Unborn Life Act against any practitioner who illegally performs abortions in the State of Alabama,” Marshall said in a statement. statement to “The power of states to protect unborn life is established.”

At least 14 states have banned or nearly banned abortion since the Supreme Court ruling in June, while nine others have moved to restrict abortion but have been blocked by courts from enforcing the restrictions due to challenges court proceedings in progress.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., predicted that a lawsuit could be filed against the new VA policy.

“I’m sure it will be challenged in court, but hopefully it fails because, quite frankly, what the VA would have to do is say, look, there’s a medical procedure that we can’t. not use, then you’re gonna have to die,” Tester told reporters on Thursday.

Congressional Democrats support the VA’s argument that it has the authority to cover abortions under the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, which states that the Secretary of the VA “shall provide such hospital care and medical services…as the Secretary deems necessary.”

“Women, not the government, should be making their own decisions about their own bodies,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said at a press conference Wednesday, applauding the VA’s decision and condemning the opposition from the GOP. “Women, not the government, should determine what is best for their families and their future. Abortion is health care, and that makes it a basic human right.”

Warren and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, organized a letter earlier this year signed by 23 other Senate Democrats that pushed McDonough to expand VA coverage to include abortions.

Pressed on Wednesday whether Democrats were considering legislation to codify the new VA policy or protect VA doctors in states where abortion is banned, Warren pointed to broader efforts to restore abortion rights nationwide. nationwide through a bill called the Women’s Health Protection Act, efforts that stalled because of the partisan 50-50 split in the Senate.

“If we can get two more Democratic senators here and keep the House, then Roe will be the law and it won’t be a topical issue anymore,” Warren said, alluding to the upcoming midterm elections. “In the meantime, we ask that the law as written be enforced. In the 1990s, Congress passed two bills that clarified that the Veterans Administration is responsible for veterans’ health care. Abortion is health care.”

Rebecca Kheel can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

— Patricia Kime can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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