County moves to block abortion insurance

February 11, 2010 3:51:28 PM PST
A legal tussle over abortion is developing in Wake County that could drag in cities and counties across North Carolina.

Wake County Commission Chairman Tony Gurley says it's illegal for the county's health insurance plan to fund abortions for county employees - citing the 30-year-old NC State Supreme Court ruling Stam v. State.

Gurley placed the issue on the board's agenda for Monday, but after discussions with Gurley and the county attorney, County Manager David Cooke went ahead and made the change Thursday.

The county’s insurance plan will continue to pay for abortions in the cases of incest, rape or danger to the life of the mother.

Wake County has been self insured for several years, and has allowed abortions to be reimbursed under its health care policy for at least 11 years. Records show at least 12 claims have been made. Gurley says the county switched from a private insurer before it took on the liability on itself, and just adopted the language in the policy of the private company when it drew up its own terms.

Gurley says the decision to block abortion reimbursement is not about politics, although the Republican admits to opposing abortion. He says Stam v. State is clear. It allows the state to fund abortions - and they are covered for state employees - but counties cannot without state approval.

But legal experts on the left disagree. Analysts for the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood of North Carolina say providing abortion coverage is up to each city and county.

"This case does not address the question of whether counties and cities have the ability to levy property taxes to pay for complete health insurance for their employees," said Planned Parenthood in a statement to ABC11.

Despite Thursday's action by County Manager Cooke, the board of commissioners do have a final say on the issue. Its meeting begins at 2 p.m. Monday on the seventh floor of the Wake County Courthouse on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh. A public comment period begins at 3 p.m.

Speaking with ABC11 Thursday, Gurley predicted whatever the board does it will likely result in a lawsuit. He said if abortions aren't allowed, he expects litigation from Planned Parenthood and/or the ACLU. Allowing abortions would likely mean a lawsuit by anti-abortion groups. The outcome of any potential lawsuits could affect local governments across the state.

Wake County is not the first to take up the abortion issue. The Town of Apex also recently decided to pull the plug on abortions paid for by its health insurance plan. Officials there didn't cite Stam v. State, but said the town shouldn't foot the bill for abortions that aren't deemed medically necessary to preserve the life of a mother.

ABC11 research shows that the majority of other cities in the Raleigh/Durham area offer some type of elective abortion coverage as do about 80 percent of private insurance plans across the country.

Efforts in the Legislature to cut insurance reimbursements for state employee elective abortions have repeatedly failed.

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