The least controversial participant in any Capitol legislative committee meeting, not counting the clerk, is usually the attorney from the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Council who helps interpret state statutes and bill language for committee legislators.
This made it all the more surprising when, at a public hearing Thursday held by the Assembly Committee on Insurance, legislative council attorney Margit Kelley received a sharp rebuke from a Madison area legislator.
The disagreement centered on language in a Republican-authored bill, AB154, that would prohibit elective abortion procedures from being covered by insurance plans sold through health care exchanges. An exchange is a market mechanism set up by the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that would allow consumers to compare and purchase insurance policies. A couple of states have established exchanges already, though the federal deadline for establishing such exchanges is 2014.
Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) asked Kelley to clarify if the bill being discussed by the committee allowed health care providers to sell abortion coverage outside of the exchange while marketing another plan without abortion coverage in the exchange market. Kelley paused. She then answered the question by repeating the intention of the bill -- plans that sold elective abortion coverage would not be allowed in the health care exchange market while plans that did not would be.
But Berceau interrupted Kelley in the middle of her response.
"I understand that, but I think you need to read that sentence [in the bill] again and have someone else interpret it for you, thank you," Berceau said to Kelley.
Although Kelley could not answer definitively, Republicans on the committee and those who testified in support of the bill claimed it would not restrict private insurance plans outside the exchange market from offering elective abortion coverage.
Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington), a co-author of the bill, said it would clarify for Wisconsin taxpayers what aspects of health coverage could be paid with government subsidies.
"It is important to note that this bill does not ban abortions or prohibit a woman from receiving an abortion," Vos told committee members. "It just clarifies that health care exchanges in Wisconsin should not include coverage of abortions and should not have taxpayer dollars paying for them -- which...is consistent with current Wisconsin law."
Wisconsin law, like federal law, prohibits the use of public funds for abortion procedures except when the woman is a victim of rape or incest or if the pregnancy resulted in life-threatening complications.
Barbara Sella, associate director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, told committee members that the bill does not prohibit insurance companies from offering abortion services outside of the exchange. The bill would let health care insurance companies refuse to cover elective abortion, but Sella said opponents of the bill exaggerated the number of companies that would drop abortion coverage.
"Everything I've read, how it's gone in other states... there's no suggestion that that would be the effect," Sella said. More than 10 other states have passed similar prohibitive legislation, though none of those states have an operating exchange yet.
Still, without language expressly authorizing insurance companies to provide abortion coverage in their non-exchange plans, Nicole Safar, public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, argued that insurance companies would likely stop providing such coverage altogether since most residents would ultimately be covered under the health care exchange.
And Dane County Board member Carousel Bayrd, who identified herself as a victim of sexual assault, said she was concerned that even if abortion coverage were made available outside the exchange, it would be unaffordable to most women.
"There should be a process to make it very clear that abortion will be made available to victims," Baryd told committee members, saying later in her testimony she hoped "that government does not re-victimize us."