Judge strikes down law restricting Medicaid-funded abortions

The Alaska Superior Court today struck down a state law that would have limited Medicaid coverage of abortions for low-income women. The judge found the law, which imposes a strict definition of “medically necessary abortion” violates the equal protection guarantees of Alaska’s constitution.

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Laura Einstein is a legal counsel for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, which filed the lawsuit.

“We’re extremely gratified that low-income women in Alaska can continue to get assistance in paying for an abortion if they need to have one and their doctor agrees that it will be beneficial to their health.”

Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of abortions in Alaska. In 2014, it administered about 1,400. Of those, about 400 were covered by Medicaid.

In order to qualify for Medicaid reimbursement, a procedure needs to be medically necessary as determined by a physician. In 2014, the Alaska Legislature defined medically necessary with a list of specific health conditions. The court struck down that definition.

“What the court found was that requiring women to have a health condition that was dire, that was essentially one where their life was at risk, was too high a standard and too fundamentally different than the standard that would be applied for the provision of other health services in the Medicaid program.”

Republican Sen. John Coghill sponsored the bill that defines what’s medically necessary. He says he’s very disappointed with the court’s decision, although he hasn’t read it yet.

“I think it does show that quite often judges come to a decision based on their own political philosophies. I think it’s just very, very evident in this particular case.”

Coghill says the state shouldn’t pay for abortions that don’t meet the criteria under his law.

“When it’s medically necessary, there’s a reasonable cause. When it’s not medically necessary and it’s more optional, then I think people should carry the load of their own decisions.”

A spokeswoman with the state attorney general’s office says the agency is still reviewing the decision and doesn’t know if it will appeal.

Lisa Phu is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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