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Judge blocks new law restricting state abortion payments

Lisa Demer

A new Alaska law restricting state payments for abortions sought by women who receive Medicaid assistance was put on hold this week, one day before it was set to take effect.

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest challenged the law, as well as a similar state regulation, in court earlier this year, arguing that both measures violate the constitutional rights of women seeking abortions.

On Tuesday, Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock agreed to put the law on hold until a trial set for February 2015. The law only allows state payments for abortions that meet a narrow definition of “medically necessary.”

“Planned Parenthood raises substantial issues going to the merits of the statute, and is entitled to its day in court before the statute takes effect,” Suddock wrote in a three-page decision.

The law, which passed the Legislature this year as Senate Bill 49, had been scheduled to take effect Wednesday.

The Medicaid program still covers the cost of abortions for low-income women in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is in danger. Under a 2001 Alaska Supreme Court ruling, Medicaid also must cover abortions considered medically necessary.

Only this year did the state define “medically necessary,” first through a Parnell administration rule and then under the new law. Suddock put the new rule on hold back in February.

Both the law and the regulation limited state payments for medically necessary abortions to those that fit specific criteria. While the regulation made some provision for mental health issues, the law did not.

Among the physical conditions that would qualify an abortion for state payment were coma, epilepsy, seizures, heart failure and diabetes with severe organ damage.

“You have to be at death’s door before you can call it medically necessary,” said Susan Orlansky, an Anchorage attorney representing Planned Parenthood.

Critics argued that the law took decision making ability away from doctors. Backers said the measure didn't stop anyone from getting an abortion but rather clarified when the state should pay.

“Elective procedures, including elective abortions, should not be paid for by state Medicaid,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks and the sponsor of Senate Bill 49. “At some point in time, the court is going to have to draw a line: What qualifies as a purely elective abortion for the purposes of these payments?”

The matter will likely end up before the Supreme Court, he said in a written statement.

Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general, said, "We are disappointed in this preliminary ruling but plan to present a strong defense of the statute at trial."

Last year, Medicaid paid for 547 of the 1,450 abortions in Alaska, according to a state report.

Contact Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com.