Oregon needs to strengthen its laws to protect doctors who provide abortions or gender-affirming care from prosecution and lawsuits, a legislative work group recommended Wednesday.
That’s among several recommendations from the Reproductive Health and Access to Care workgroup, which House Speaker Dan Rayfield convened this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the national right to abortion. The procedure remains legal in Oregon, but as Rayfield told a legislative committee on Wednesday, abortion being legal doesn’t guarantee care.
“Oregonians have clearly affirmed their support for making abortion and other care safe and accessible to all,” Rayfield said. “But I want to be clear: The right to access an abortion does not mean abortion care is accessible.”
The workgroup found that three-quarters of Oregon’s counties don’t have abortion providers, and roughly 30% of the state’s hospital beds are in Catholic hospitals that are exempt from providing abortions, contraceptives and some other reproductive health care.
Women in eastern Oregon who previously travelled to Boise or Meridian for abortions can no longer do so because of a recently enacted ban in Idaho. Oregon clinics now face higher demand from Oregon residents along with women from Idaho and other states where abortion is now banned or restricted.
“We now border a state, Idaho, with a near-total abortion ban,” Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told the committee. “Abortion bans indisputably put health, and that means lives, at risk.”
The workgroup’s 22-page report, released Wednesday afternoon, calls for additional training for community health workers and updating state webpages to make sure people who need abortion or gender-affirming care know their rights and where they can receive care.
And it seeks an unspecified amount of legislative funding for incentives for health care providers and medical fellows and residents who need to travel to Oregon for training. In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers approved $15 million for abortion care for Oregonians, out-of-state residents and providers.
Rep. Andrea Valderrama said the report brought to light issues she sees in her east Portland community every day. Valderrama, a Democrat, said she initially ran for the David Douglas School District board because her district has some of the state’s highest rates of sexually transmitted infections. Those rates fell after the board passed a policy to provide free contraceptives.
She said legislators need to take action to ensure Oregonians have access to services in their communities. The report found that some Oregonians have traveled as far as 350 miles in-state to receive abortions.
“What do these people do when they can’t afford the gas to drive 350 miles or they have kids at home who need them? As legislators, we can’t sit by,” Valderrama said.
The report also calls for more state enforcement of reproduction health insurance mandates. The state Reproductive Health Equity Act of 2017 requires that care including abortion, screenings and contraception be covered at no cost to patients, but an audit this summer found that many insurance provideres weren’t following the law.
Some insurance carriers aren’t required to do so. Federal employees and people covered by Indian Health Services or Veterans Affairs are on their own because the federal Hyde Amendment bans the use of federal funds for abortions.
Religious-based insurers such as the Providence Health Plan are exempt and some self-funded group plans don’t need to provide abortion coverage. A Republican majority on the Deschutes County Commission has repeatedly declined to add abortion coverage to its health plan for the county’s more than 1,000 employees.
The workgroup report calls for giving the Oregon Health Authority funding and authority to offer expanded reproductive health care coverage for Oregonians who don’t receive it through their insurer, and for ending a loophole that allows local governments such as Deschutes County to avoid following the law.
Several of the recommendations are intended to protect Oregon-based health care providers from legal repercussions from states that have banned abortion. That includes prohibiting medical malpractice insurers from denying or revoking coverage or imposing penalties or rate increases that are based on providing abortions or gender-affirming care in a way that’s consistent with Oregon law.
The group recommended prohibiting Oregon licensing boards from suspending health care provider licenses for providing medical care that’s legal in Oregon. It wants the Legislature to pass a law codifying Gov. Kate Brown’s commitment not to extradite people who provided legal health care services that are criminalized in other states and prohibit future governors from having the discretion to extradite individuals in those cases.
Another recommended law would explicitly prohibit Oregon prosecutors from any abortion-related prosecution, including charges for terminating a pregnancy or experiencing a miscarriage or stillbirth. Oregon law now states that abortion is a right, but it doesn’t explicitly ban prosecution.
Rosenblum pledged that the attorney general’s office will defend access to abortion and gender-affirming care.
“We at the Oregon Department of Justice will not stop defending your rights,” she said. “Access to abortion remains legal in Oregon. We will not go back to the days of politicians telling you what to do with your bodies.”
Advocates are seeking an unspecified amount of state funding to help medical providers or abortion recipients pay legal fees if they’re prosecuted or sued by other states.
The group further recommended that the state enforce Oregon’s Unlawful Trade Practices Act against so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which depict themselves as reproductive health care centers but try to dissuade women from obtaining abortions. Oregon has 44 crisis pregnancy centers and only 13 abortion clinics, according to the report.
Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, questioned whether that enforcement could violate the free speech rights of people who operate crisis pregnancy centers. The Oregon Justice Department has not prosecuted any centers.
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