Despite serious misgivings, Gov. Phil Bredesen chose not to veto legislation that will bar coverage of abortion in any health plan offered through a state-run health insurance exchange to be created under health reform.
By not vetoing the bill -- or signing it, either -- the governor allowed it automatically to become law.
In a letter sent Wednesday to House Speaker Kent Williams, the governor said he hopes the General Assembly will reconsider the measure before 2014, when the health exchanges actually will be up and running.
In the letter, the Democratic governor explained his concerns about the "unintended consequences" of the law, noting the bill would prevent any health plan in the exchange -- public or private -- from offering abortion coverage to consumers, even those paying with private funds.
"While I have long opposed the use of public funds to provide abortion services, this bill creates a prohibition much broader than that found in current law," Gov. Bredesen wrote. "I strongly encourage the General Assembly to rethink this issue and to approve a narrower and more conservative approach to the subject."
With the bill's passage into law, Tennessee becomes the second state, after Arizona, to enact legislation prohibiting abortion coverage in the state-run health exchanges. Similar legislation is pending in eight other states.
Like opponents of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, Gov. Bredesen expressed concern in his letter that the legislation departs from "longstanding reasonable exceptions for cases of rape, incest and protection of the lives of mothers."
South Carolina is the only other state to have passed a law banning abortion coverage in the exchanges that does not allow for any exceptions.
However, the bill's Senate sponsor, Sen. Diane Blake, R-Gallatin, said Wednesday that she did not intend for the bill to affect existing exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the health of the mother, even though the text of the two-sentence bill did not specifically mention any exceptions.
WHAT ARE INSURANCE EXCHANGES?
Health reform legislation creates state-level health insurance exchanges, or marketplaces, in which private insurance companies would sell plans that comply with premium rate and coverage requirements. The exchange would offer insurance to small businesses and individuals without access to other insurance so those parties could pool together as a large group, making coverage more affordable. Individuals today face significantly higher premiums than large groups on the private insurance market.
Source: Kaiser Family Foundation
Two weeks ago, the General Assembly easily passed the bill -- HB 2681/SB 2686 -- and last week, a number of legislators who supported it said they believed the bill included exceptions.
Gov. Bredesen said in his letter that the state should ensure that existing protections already separating private and public funding for abortions should be applied to state-run exchanges.
But Sen. Black argued in a phone interview that private health plans offered through the exchange still technically would be using taxpayer money, since the exchanges themselves would be set up by the state.
Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, who voted in favor of the bill, said Wednesday he's "pleased" the measure has been enacted.
"I think it's important for our citizens. This is something clearly they're not comfortable with," he said.
Individuals who want coverage for abortion can choose a plan offered outside the health exchange, Sen. Bunch said.
"If that's an issue for them, they need to make sure they negotiate with an insurance company that will provide them with what they want," he said.
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