Virginia Takes Crucial Step in Removing Barriers to Abortion Access

For a decade, Virginia has banned private plans on the state’s health insurance exchange from covering abortions, with almost no exceptions. The state Senate just removed that prohibition.

Over the past few years, Virginia has been an inspiring example of the importance of voting. Long considered a conservative state, in the past 10 years Virginia has shifted from red to purple to blue at an astonishing rate. 

Now, we’re seeing the results. Virginia made it very clear that elections matter in January 2020, when the state House and Senate voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming the 38th and final state needed to do so. 

But reproductive rights have historically been a more controversial topic than the ERA. For the last decade in Virginia, private health care plans offered on the state’s health insurance exchange have been prohibited from covering almost all abortions. As a result, most health insurance plans couldn’t cover abortions except for in extreme circumstances, and roughly 240,000 Virginians were forced to rely on health care companies that denied them their full reproductive choices.

But last month, the state Senate voted 20-17, and the House voted 55-45—both votes along party lines—to end this prohibition. The new bill, now headed to Governor Ralph Northam, will remove the abortion prohibition from state code, allowing health insurance companies to choose to cover abortion.

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While it’s still not a perfect system—insurance plans aren’t required to offer abortion coverage, and federal subsidies can’t be used to cover abortions, thanks to the Hyde Amendment—it’s a huge step forwards in destigmatizing abortion care and providing financial support for those seeking abortions.

When Governor Northam signs the bill, as he is expected to do, Virginia will be the first southern state to lift the ban on the state-run health exchange providing abortion coverage. It’s an important sign that Virginian legislators are committed to ensuring equitable access—and not just the legal right—to have an abortion.

And the bill is even more essential, given the country’s dire economic situation. During COVID-19, low-income women, single moms and women of color are being disproportionately impacted by layoffs, forced to leave the work force in droves to care for their children and are facing severe economic crises. Requiring women to pay out of pocket for abortion care adds an unnecessary and unfair burden. In Virginia, a medication abortion costs around $450 and a surgical abortion could easily be over $1,000. That is prohibitively high for many women, even without the added financial stress from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virginia’s recent progress towards providing reproductive health care demonstrates the importance of paying attention not just to federal policies but to state and local statutes as well. Now more than ever, it’s time to take note of and celebrate state legislatures taking steps to create equal access to abortion, and continue to advocate for policies that protect our right to affordable and accessible health care.

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Katie Fleischer (she/they) is a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series and Keeping Score.