A U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring the federal government to resume financing abortions for poor women could send as much as $1.5 million in federal funds to Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia by the time this fiscal year ends on June 30, according to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
HEW yesterday began putting states on notice that it would begin immediately to reimburse them for Medicaid abortions -- for the first time since August 1977, when the so-called Hyde Amendment virtually ended such a federal funding.
The federal agency was required to act after the justices voted to let stand temporarily a New York judge's ruling that struck down the amendment's funding restrictions. The court agreed to review that ruling, but not to block its implementation. Therefore, the federal funds will continue to flow until the Supreme Court makes its final decision in the case.
In the District, with its liberal abortion funding guidelines, the ruling's impact is mainly financial, allowing the District to collect as much as $550,000 from the federal government for abortions performed between now and June 30.
Maryland, which has slightly more restrictive funding guidelines, also would benefit financially from the ruling. HEW estimates the state could receive as much as $560,000 in abortion reimbursements from the federal government by the end of June. But the ruling, according to several state legislators, also threatens to add new fuel to the traditionally burning debate over abortion funding that flares each year in the General Assembly.
In Virginia, where the state enacted its own stiff restrictions on abortion funding two years ago, state officials said the effect of the ruling would be minimal. Currently the state funds about 100 abortions a year at an annual cost of about $17,500, and pays for an abortion only when the life of the mother is substantially endangered, according to state officials.
But a spokesman for HEW's health care financing administration said the court ruling would allow the state to be reimbursed for 55 percent of the cost of any abortions performed. Before the Hyde Amendment took effect in August 1977, Virginia was funding about 3,700 abortions annually at a cost of $425,000 -- most of it in federal funds.
The Hyde Amendment, named for its sponsor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), permits federal payments for an abortion only in cases were a woman's life would be jeopardized without it or where a pregnancy resulted from rape or incest that has been promptly reported by the victim.
The federal courts, one in New York and one in Chicago, have held that such restrictions are a denial of constitutional rights. The Supreme Court has agreed to review both of these rulings.
The Supreme Court's action this week however, left open the possibility that the states could seek reimbursement for the abortions they funded after the amendment took effect.
Between August 1977, when the Hyde Amendment took effect, and last May the District spent more than $3.6 million on Medicaid abortions for more than 10,000 women.
"Maryland has been funding a wide range of medically necessary abortions for some time," Assistant Attorney General Randall Lutz said yesterday. "We may ask for reimbursement, but we'll wait until the Supreme Court makes its final ruling."
Last year, Maryland spent nearly $1.4 million to fund more than 6,100 abortions, according to state officials. The state received federal funds for only 184 of those abortions under the restrictive guidelines of the Hyde Amendment, a state official said.
Each year in the Maryland General Assembly, a virulent debate rages over what type of restrictions should be placed on funding Medicaid abortions for indigent women.
Last year a compromise was reached that allowed state funding of abortions when the pregnancy "could have adverse effect on the woman's present or future physical or mental health." Antiabortionists were less satisfied with the compromise language than the proabortionists, but many legislators believed that those 1979 guidelines would be used against and would forestall a new controversy this year.
The Supreme Court ruling may have changed all that.
Several members of a House of Delegates subcommittee that will take the first action this year on the state's budget for abortion funding argued yesterday that the high court decision mandates the elimination of all restrictions on abortion funding.
"If we hadn't had the [Supreme Court] case come in, I think we should have adopted the same language we had last year," said subcommittee chairman Del. Frank Pesci (D-Prince George's), who opposes abortion funding. "Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, we'll have another controversy this year."