House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) is holding an essential community health bill hostage to abortion politics. Armey is refusing to schedule a vote on HR 3450, which would renew federal funding for community health centers, until Congress votes on another bill, HR 4691, that creates a “conscience clause” allowing federal funds to continue to go to hospitals and insurance plans that refuse to offer or cover abortion procedures. The Feminist Majority and other abortion rights groups oppose the conscience clause bill because it could threaten women’s health by allowing facilities to refuse to provide abortion services even to protect the life or health of a woman.
Late last year, the community health bill – which allocates funds to approximately 1,000 centers across the country that provide health care for about 12 million low-income and uninsured people – was originally moving quickly through the House until Armey attached the conscience clause measure, a loophole long sought by anti-abortion groups. However, pro-choice lawmakers then stepped in and removed the clause from the bill. While Armey then agreed to have the two bills heard separately, he has since refused to schedule a vote on the community health bill until he conscience clause bill is voted on, his Spokesman Greg Crist told the Associated Press. The Senate passed the community health bill without the conscience clause and without opposition this past spring.
While funds continue to be provided to the nation’s community health centers, HR 3450 authorizes these funds and sets the rules for how those funds should be spent. In addition, Dan Hawkins, policy director for the National Association of Community Health Centers, noted threats by some lawmakers to cut funds for all programs not authorized by the time Congress adjourns. The Bush administration has remained neutral on the controversy, even though increased funding for community health centers has been at the center of the president’s health policy agenda. “The president has made this one of his top health priorities and has called for a major expansion of this program as the heart and soul of his health policy,” Hawkins told the Associated Press. “It raises the obvious question of how deep the commitment is.”