May 27, 2024

‘Compounding overlapping barriers:’ Congressional health care changes would hurt military

Federal battles over the inclusion of military abortion bans in a defense spending bill raised concerns about the service members’ access to health care, and the impact it could have for members in Ohio and other states still deciding on the legality of abortion care.

In the U.S. House’s defense spending bill, provisions were added at the behest of far-right legislators that would reverse Pentagon policies allowing abortion access to military service members.

The U.S. Senate passed the defense bill without the provision, sure to lead to an intense forthcoming negotiation between the chambers.

But the fact that it was placed in the bill at all raised concerns with veterans and policy groups alike.

“There’s no ability for a male or a male-identifying person who can not get pregnant to understand this,” said Nicole King, a Navy veteran and anesthesiologist now living in Ohio. “None of this affects them. Period. End.”

King went into the service and her medical training thinking she wanted to be in general surgery, but realized her passion for obstetrical care and critical care as she worked with her fellow service members.

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Before the current policy, which encourages communication between service members and their chain of command when it comes to reproductive health, and also provides transportation reimbursement and leave for care, King said the supports weren’t in place to help those who wanted to access abortion.

“Access is more available to military and dependents of active duty military than it was previously, simply because the (Department of Defense) is mandating that chain of command get involved and support these service members,” King said.

After the Dobbs decision overturned nationwide abortion legalization and the U.S. Supreme Court pushed the decision to the states, the country became a patchwork of care, which complicated things for military members.

“It’s moral outrage that has so many implications for people’s actual lives,” King said.

With abortion illegal in 14 states and varying restrictions throughout the rest of the country, Jackii Wang, senior legislative analyst for the National Women’s Law Center, said changing the policies for reproductive care would represent a “harmful” change to the military members, that is also unpopular in terms of the national public opinion on abortion access.

“They are just compounding overlapping barriers to service members getting the care they need,” said Jackii Wang, senior legislative analyst for the National Women’s Law Center. “This is a group of lawmakers who are legislating contrary to popular will.”

Complicating things further is the fact that the military health care service, Tricare, only covers abortions when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or the life of the pregnant person is at risk. In both cases, a physician has to document “that it is their good faith belief” that the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, or certify the life of the mother is endangered.

Tricare also specifies they do not cover abortions “for fetal abnormality or for psychological reasons,” according to the health care service’s website.

The impacts don’t just reach to abortion care either. King said those service members who are using infertility treatments to try to have a child would be impacted. Therefore, a change in policies would lead to a reduced military force in the U.S., with service members having to take more time off and travel farther distances just to receive the treatment they need.

“We will have forced a lot of people’s hands,” King said. “They’re actually decreasing military readiness.”

Without abortion care, more pregnant service members will also be forced out of the service, at least temporarily, as they have children. King also said it’s often overlooked that pregnancy is still a medically dangerous procedure, which gets even more risky the more pregnancies an individual has.

“The more pregnancies you have, the more potential complications there are, the more women are less able to do what they were able to do before, including serving in the military,” according to King.

That will also increase the costs these service members take on, including child care, at a time when a full-time enlisted private with four years of experience in the U.S. Army, for example, has a salary of $23,011. That salary is below the federal poverty level for a household of three, according to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“These (current policies) are financial supports that service members really need and are very beneficial to their family members,” Wang said.

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