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The government should be ahead of the curve on abortion coverage, not behind

Protesters for abortion rights demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on Friday, June 24, 2022 after the court released a decision to strike Roe v. Wade.
Greg Nash
Protesters for abortion rights demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on Friday, June 24, 2022 after the court released a decision to strike Roe v. Wade.

If we’ve learned anything from the midterm elections, it’s that the American people will not tolerate the chaos and tragedies that the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has wreaked.  

Americans across the country, from California to Kentucky, don’t want politicians intruding on their reproductive healthcare decisions, including abortion. But Congress has done just that to federal employees almost every year since 1983 by banning abortion from our insurance plans. 

Congress hasn’t maintained this carveout to cut back on costs or protect our health; banning abortion does neither. It’s done so for purely political reasons, at public servants’ expense.

Removing all restrictions on federal funds being used for abortion coverage would be a huge relief for people throughout the country, including millions of enrollees in Medicaid. It would also make a huge difference for the more than 2 million federal employees who currently work for the rare employer that doesn’t cover a form of healthcare that is vital to our autonomy and well-being.

As federal employees who also both happen to be attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division,  if we need abortion care, we must pay out of pocket except in the most extreme cases — if our lives are in danger or if our pregnancies resulted from rape or incest. Nationwide, the average cost of an abortion ranges from around $550 to $1,670. The total cost can be far higher if we must travel long distances due to limited provider options or restrictive state laws, which will affect more people as more states ban abortion. Although many private employers now cover abortion-related travel costs, the federal government has failed to do so for its civilian employees, despite our needs and requests.

These out-of-pocket costs impose financial burdens on countless federal employees — particularly women, people of color and their families — and may put abortion care out of reach for some of the lowest-paid workers. Federal salaries start at $23,440, which is just over the poverty line for a family of three. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, half of the adults in the United States — and even one-third of people with employer-sponsored insurance — don’t have the cash to cover an unexpected $500 medical bill. 

Congress’s abortion ban also places the federal government out of step with the private sector, where only 10 percent of insured employees work for an employer that excludes abortion coverage in some or all cases. This disparity impedes the government’s efforts to recruit and retain top talent in today’s competitive job market. 

As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government should lead when it comes to workers’ health and safety, not lag behind. This is particularly true when the president and many members of Congress champion their strong support for abortion rights. It’s time to back up those words with action and support the employees who work every day to move the administration’s priorities forward.

While the Supreme Court and many states have systematically scaled back access to abortion, the common narrative has been that Congress is unable to reverse the damage. That’s not true. Congress can improve abortion access nationwide by removing spending blocks on abortion coverage for millions of people who obtain health insurance or healthcare through the federal government — including federal employees. And because Congress can do this when it approves the final fiscal year 2023 appropriations package, lawmakers have the power to dramatically expand abortion access now. 

Congress should also pass the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, or EACH Act, which is designed to remove punitive federal spending bans on abortion permanently. These steps would help ensure that medical decisions are left to patients in consultation with their healthcare providers, not to politicians.

The White House can also do more. President Biden took an important first step by removing the Hyde Amendment’s ban on abortion coverage for Medicaid beneficiaries from his budget proposals for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, but he left intact the ban on coverage for federal employees. The president should remove all federal bans on abortion coverage in his budget proposal for the fiscal year 2024. It will send an important message — and it’s the right thing to do. 

Serving in the government has always required federal employees to make personal sacrifices, but foregoing essential healthcare coverage shouldn’t be one of them. This year, of all years, let’s leave bans on abortion coverage on the cutting room floor. 

Stacey Young is an attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the president and co-founder of the Department of Justice Gender Equality Network (DOJ GEN) a 1,250-member advocacy organization at DOJ. Jen Swedish is an attorney in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and a leader of the DOJ GEN’s Abortion Access Working Group. DOJ GEN is recognized by the Justice Department but does not speak on its behalf. 

Tags Abortion in the United States Biden federal employees Federal Employees Health Benefits Program Hyde Amendment Medicaid Medicare Politics of the United States Roe v Wade

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