opinion Newport Rhode Island

Right now, there are tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who are denied access to abortion through their health coverage. We’re calling on Governor McKee to end these abortion coverage bans in this year’s budget.

The ability to make decisions about when or if we have children is under attack across the country. Some states are effectively banning abortion while the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Access to care is falling further and further out of reach for so many Americans.

Rhode Island must buck this dangerous backwards trend. We have a responsibility to protect access to abortion for all Rhode Islanders. We took a major step forward by passing the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019 – the question of whether abortion should be legal in Rhode Island has been answered. But a legal right does not guarantee access to care. And a right is not real if there are laws on the books that say certain people cannot have abortion coverage.

Passing the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act (EACA) this year will ensure that when someone needs an abortion, they will not be denied care based on the source of their health insurance. 

The EACA is simple — it allows Rhode Island’s Medicaid program to cover abortion and it repeals the state law that prohibits state employee health plans from covering abortion. 

Without insurance coverage, most of us would struggle to access health care. Yet Rhode Islanders covered by state plans, including Medicaid, have deliberate and medically unnecessary restrictions on their access to health care.

Our state employee health plans cover about 32,000 Rhode Islanders — health professionals, college professors and students, the public servants who keep our state running, and their family members. They are all denied abortion coverage.

Medicaid covers over 25 percent of Rhode Islanders, 77,000 of whom are women of child-bearing age. Medicaid serves our lowest wage earners, people with disabilities, and current and former foster youth. They deserve equal access to health care, including abortion. By leaving people on Medicaid out of the Reproductive Privacy Act’s protections, we have created an unequal system.

When a patient can’t access abortion care because of cost, they are forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy or forgo paying for basic things like rent, groceries, or transportation to work. Given that 60 percent of people who seek abortion already have at least one child, this legislation impacts families. 

As the lead sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, we have asked Governor McKee to take action now by including its provisions in his upcoming budget proposal. Rhode Island has been a discriminatory outlier when it comes to abortion coverage bans. Passing this bill would put us in line with our neighboring states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. 

And it’s not just sound public policy. Allowing Medicaid to cover abortion is a mainstream Democratic value. President Biden supports allowing federal dollars to cover abortion through Medicaid – a change that is long overdue. But the federal government moves slowly and we can’t allow inaction in Washington to impede progress here in Rhode Island.

Now is the time. This is the year that Rhode Island stops discriminating against public servants, their families and people who use Medicaid. It is a question of health equity. We must end these harmful barriers to abortion care and we need the Governor to lead on it.

Rep. Liana Cassar (D-Dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence) and Sen. Bridget Valverde (D-Dist. 35, North Kingstown, East Greenwich, Narragansett, South Kingstown) are the sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.