A gavel atop a large pile of folders and papers

After a Key Legislative Cutoff, Bills Protecting Washington Abortion Providers and Patients Are Still in Play

by Megan Burbank

Last spring, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked, Washington lawmakers gathered in Seattle’s Kerry Park and promised a future of legislative remedies to ensure continued abortion access in the state. In this year’s legislative session, several were introduced, with new protections for providers and patients.

“I feel really touched and overwhelmed by the generosity of time and effort and commitment that our elected leaders have been making on these issues for our patients,” said Courtney Normand, Washington State director at Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, of the emerging policies. Of the bills introduced this session, not all made it past the deadline to be voted out of their house of origin. Still, tracking the bills, Normand said she felt “gratitude to be in a state where we can do something about this, because the amount of cruelty that’s unfolding across the country is just appalling and heartbreaking, but it feels good to be able to try to do something to help people who are able to make their way to Washington.”

Here are the reproductive health policy bills that still have a chance of advancing this year — and one that ran out of time.

Policies Not Advancing

New Regulations for Hospital Mergers

The Keep Our Care Act (HB 1263, SB 5241), also introduced last year, would have imposed new reporting requirements when health care entities merge, in an effort to ensure continuity of care in a process known to erode access to services like reproductive health care, gender-affirming care, and medical aid in dying. While the Senate version of the bill made it out of the Senate Law and Justice and Ways and Means Committees, its progress stopped there. Despite efforts to address the concerns of small independent providers through the amendment process, said Normand, time ran out for the bill this year. “There’s still a lot of interest in addressing this issue of big health-entity mergers and the ways that they fail to maintain a good standard of access to health care and specific services, let alone affordable services,” she said. “So we’ll be back to try to come at it again and see if we can pass some legislation that helps give some much-needed oversight to these entities.”

Policies That Made the Cutoff

No Cost-Sharing for Abortion

Even when it’s covered by private insurance, abortion can be expensive. That’s because even with insurance coverage, the patient’s responsibility, in the form of copays or coinsurance, can be costly. That’s a problem for abortion procedures, which can become more expensive and more complex the longer a patient waits. “This is a time-sensitive medical service that people already often have to make a lot of arrangements for, and so when they’re suddenly faced with an unexpected expense right as they’re headed in for their appointment, it can really cause a lot of hardship,” said Normand. A bill prohibiting cost-sharing for abortion procedures (SB 5242, HB 1115) would offset these expenses. The policy wouldn’t automatically mean abortion care is free for everyone: Normand noted that it would not impact patients on high-deductible plans (“we certainly want to see what can be done for that”), but that for patients with private insurance on plans with lower deductibles, the legislation should result in full coverage for abortion if enacted into law. The bill advanced out of the Senate and received a hearing in the House Health Care and Wellness Committee on March 17.

Data Privacy for Personal Health Information

In March, a Texas man filed a lawsuit against three women for allegedly helping his wife obtain an abortion. The evidence at the center of the case? Text messages sent between his ex-wife and her friends. As more state laws enable lawsuits against people who facilitate abortion care, advocates are increasingly concerned about privacy when it comes to personal health information not protected under HIPAA — and the possibility that data trails could be used in prosecutions or lawsuits like the one in Texas. The My Health, My Data Act (HB 1155, SB 5351) seeks to close this loophole by establishing privacy protections for personal health information not already protected under HIPAA. The bill would also protect data obtained by crisis pregnancy centers, which resemble health care facilities but are not bound by HIPAA, and would prevent geofencing around abortion clinics. The bill was voted out of the House on March 4 and is currently under consideration in the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

The Shield Law

While Washington law upholds abortion rights in the absence of Roe v. Wade, in states with abortion-hostile legislatures, people who facilitate or provide abortion care currently face the specter of prosecution. The Shield Law (HB 1469, SB 5489) protects providers from this kind of legal action in Washington. That means that if another state were to attempt to prosecute a provider, Washington would not cooperate with any related investigation efforts. Notably, the Shield Law also applies to providers of gender-affirming care, which, like abortion, has been banned in states like Florida, cutting off access for young people. The Shield Law establishes both reproductive health care and gender-affirming care as protected health care services and would give the attorney general the authority to crack down on efforts to investigate and prosecute either one. The bill passed out of the House on March 4 and has been referred to the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Licensing Protections for Providers

Similar to the Shield Law, a second bill (HB 1340, SB 5400) would protect abortion providers’ licenses from retaliatory actions from medical licensing boards. This means that if an abortion provider wants to provide care in Washington, legal actions from abortion-hostile states won’t be a barrier to being able to practice medicine. The bill passed out of the House on Feb. 28 and is currently in the Rules Committee.

Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.

📸 Featured image by Billion Photos/Shutterstock.com.

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