Budget blocks student insurance from covering abortion

LARAMIE — The Wyoming House and Senate both passed versions of the state’s budget bill on Friday. The chambers will have differences in funding for the University of Wyoming that will need to be sorted out in a legislative “conference committee” before the bill heads to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.

However, both chambers have already agreed to one significant last minute change — one that has essentially nothing to do the university’s budget.

Both versions of the budget bill have been amended to make the Legislature’s roughly $446 million biennial appropriation for UW contingent on a new rule: The university cannot “expend any general funds, federal funds or other funds under its control” on “group health insurance that provides coverage of elective abortions for students.”

Currently, UW’s student health care plans are funded through the premiums students pay, not the Legislature’s block grant. Getting insurance through the university is voluntary for all students except some international students.

The initiative to address abortion in the budget bill came from Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, who asked the Legislative Service Office in 2019 to analyze whether how UW Student Health Services handles abortion.

The LSO told Gray in July that while Student Health Services doesn't provide abortions, UW student insurance provided through UnitedHealthcare does, in fact, cover both “medically necessary abortion under complications of pregnancy and elective abortion, subject to all other requirements of the policy (deductible, copay, in and outside of network rates, etc.).”

Gray proposed an amendment in the House to prevent UW insurance from covering abortion during the second reading of the budget bill on Wednesday.

Both amendments passed by the House and Senate do carry an identical carveout: Students' insurance can still cover abortions when "the life of the mother would be endangered if the unborn child was carried to full term," and in situations in which the fetus was conceived through incest or sexual assault.

Initially, members of the JAC pushed back on the amendment. Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, initially urged his colleagues to vote down Gray’s amendment and said the proposal was “really legislating in the budget bill and really should’ve been its own bill.”

However, the amendment’s backers succeeded in framing the amendment as a litmus test on abortion for the chamber. They asked for a roll call vote and said their colleagues should be held accountable for their votes.

Ultimately, Larsen joined 36 other House members in voting “aye” to pass the amendment.

Two of Albany County’s legislators voted in favor of the amendment: Rep. Dan Furphy, R-Laramie, and Rep. Bill Haley, R-Centennial.

Laramie Democrats Cathy Connolly and Charles Pelkey voted against the amendment.

Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, said on Friday that, since Wednesday’s initial vote, he had been receiving emails from constituents advocating for Gray’s proposal. During the bill’s third reading on Friday, the House readdressed the issue one more time, but Gray’s proposal had gotten only more support.

Sweeney tried to water-down the Gray amendment so that only “general funds and federal funds” cannot be spent on abortions but UW’s “other funds” can.

“The issue here is the inappropriate use of budgeting authority to pull in other funds,” Sweeney said. “We are attempting to control funds that do not go through our body to appropriate.”

However, the House voted down Sweeney’s amendment 43-16.

On Friday, Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, also introduced an identical version of the Gray amendment in the Senate.

The amendment was passed in the Senate on a 15-13 vote. Sen. Glenn Moniz, R-Laramie, voted in favor and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, voted against. Rothfuss said he thought the amendment violated the Wyoming Constitution’s rules on what’s allowable in the budget bill.

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said he supported the amendment because he feels it’s unfair that, in order for anti-abortion students to participate in UW’s current health care plan, they’d have to participate in an insurance pool that funds abortions.

Detractors of the amendment also criticized the “rushed process” and said the proposal should have gone through the typical committee review during the interim.