Governor Terry Branstad confirmed yesterday that his administration will not take steps to limit Medicaid funding of abortions without further action by the Iowa legislature.
Forty-one Iowa House Republicans petitioned the state Department of Human Services this summer, seeking emergency rulemaking to restrict Medicaid coverage for abortions. DHS Director Chuck Palmer formally denied the petition earlier this month. In his message to lawmakers, Palmer noted that prohibiting Medicaid coverage for abortions in the case of rape or incest could jeopardize nearly $2 billion in federal Medicaid funding for Iowa. He added, "there is no clear mandate in the 2011 appropriations [bill] to make any further change to the long-standing Iowa policy regarding fetal anomaly abortions."
Branstad has long opposed abortion rights but hasn't sought to change the Medicaid coverage rules, under which the state of Iowa paid for 22 abortions during the last fiscal year. Until yesterday I had not seen any public comment from the governor on Palmer's decision, but he tipped his hand last month by describing the DHS director as "a problem-solver" with "empathy for the people who receive human services" and "good fiscal management skills."
Iowa Right to Life, one of the state's leading anti-choice advocacy groups, had hoped to bring Branstad around on this issue.
"Iowa is currently one of only three states that fund abortions with taxpayer dollars for fetal abnormality," [Iowa Right to Life President Marlys] Popma said in a statement. "In no way is this consistent with the federal Hyde Amendment and funding for such abortions should be ceased immediately. We call on the administration to act accordingly."
State Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, who led the petition effort to change DHS rules, said she was disappointed by the agency's action because she does not believe it is following the intent of legislation passed during the 2011 session that Branstad signed relating to taxpayer-funded abortions. She said she also is disappointed that Branstad has not intervened since she accompanied him on a tour around Iowa stressing the importance of agency rules mirroring legislative intent.
"I don't want to poke him in the eye, but he is ultimately responsible," she said.
In her statement, Popma praised Branstad as "a consistent defender of the lives of the unborn" and noted that her group affirms its support for him. But she added that Iowa Right to Life "regrettably deems it necessary to make our views known on the denial of the petition and its petitioners."
When asked about this topic on August 13, Branstad made clear that the ball is in lawmakers' court.
"This is something the Legislature needs to address," Branstad said during his weekly news conference. "The present law is not clear and we cannot take action unless we have a law that gives us the authority to do so. I have always been one that believes that we have to abide by the constitution and the laws, and that we cannot by administrative rule do things that are not authorized by the law."
Branstad does not agree with House Republicans' interpretation of the Department of Human Services appropriations bill passed in June 2011. He touched on that point during yesterday's press conference.
"That's been carefully reviewed and that language is very vague and there are very many interpretations of that," the governor said.
"We understand this is a controversial issue," he told reporters Monday. "There are strong feelings on both sides and there was not a consensus as I understand between the House and the Senate on this issue, so it was not addressed in the legislative session and we don't have the authority to do it by rule."
Note that Branstad did not clarify whether he would sign into law language that explicitly prohibits Medicaid from covering abortions in the case of rape, incest, or severe fetal abnormalities. Federal law requires Medicaid to cover abortions in cases of rape or incest, but not in cases of fetal abnormalities. If Republicans hold the Iowa House and win the Iowa Senate this November, more restrictive language on Medicaid coverage of abortions is certain to pass during the 2013 legislative session. If the Iowa legislature remains under divided control after this year's election, the stalemate over Medicaid funding is likely to continue.