District of Columbia and Maryland state officials said yesterday that in light of the newly implemented ban of federal spending for most abortions, they would continue paying for the abortions of indigent women - at least for an interim period.
Despite such assurances, however, abortion clinics in the Washington area reported receiving numerous telephone calls yesterday from confused Medicaid recipients who are scheduled to have abortions within the next few days. The women wanted to know if they could still have their abortions now that federal funds have been cut off.
"We had five women on Medicaid scheduled to come in this morning (for abortions), but only three showed up," said Jane Taylor of the Preterm Center for Reproductive Health in the District. "I hope it wasn't because of the HEW announcement."
Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. on Thursday ordered an immediate end of federal funding of most abortions for low-income women after a federal judge in New York lifted in a year-long injunction against an abortion spending ban enacted last year by Congress.
Califano's action was sharply criticized by proponents of liberalized abortion laws who argued that the newly imposed restrictions discriminate against poor women and may force them to undergo self-induced or otherwise unsafe abortions or to have unwanted children.
An estimated 1 million abortions were performed in this country last year, including about 250,000 to 300,000 that were paid for with Medicaid funds. In the District last year, about 7,400 out of a total of more than $32,000 abortions were paid for with federal funds.
Albert P. Russo, director of the D.C. Department of Human Resources, said his agency will continue to provide abortions for Medicaid-eligible women through the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, with the city paying 100 per cent of the cost.
Russo said he had Mayor Walter E. Washington's approval for such an action - which will cost the District an additional $288,000 for an estimated 1,200 Medicaid abortions to Sept. 30. Russo said DHR was choosing this course "to avoid an injustice and disservice to those pregnant women otherwise eligible for Medicaid."
D.C. General Hospital, where one third of the 1,000 abortions performed last year were paid for by Medicaid, will continue to provide such operations regardless of a patient's ability to pay, a spokesman said.
But other area abortion clinics noted yesterday that the city's public hospital is already severely overcrowded and will not be able to handle all the poor women in the District who may want abortions.
Maryland health officials yesterday notified clinics and hospitals that the state will continue to fund abortions for Medicaid recipients until the General Assembly meets in January and sets a policy on the controversial issue.
In Virginia health officials in Richmond said they had made no decision on state abortions spending because they had not yet received official notice of HEW's guidelines.
The ban, adopted last year by Congress but held up by court challenges until now, probibits HEW from funding abortions except when the life of the mother is endangered by the pregnancy. At the time of the bill's passage, Congress interpreted the measure as also allowing abortions for ectopic (fallopian tube) pregnancies and for victims of rape and incest.
Congress is currently considering a new abortion funding ban for the coming fiscal year. The House has passed one version of the bill that would continue the present ban without any change. The Senate has approved a less strict measure that would allow federal spending for abortions that have been judged by physicians to be "medically necessary."
The cost of most early-stage abortions in the Washington area now ranges from $125 to $150 for most Medicaid-covered patients to $175 to $225 for others.
Russo and other health officials said yesterday they were studying the abortion question to see whether District and state abortion payments would continue should Congress continue its funding ban. They said no final recommendations on the issue would be made until Congress has acted.
At the Preterm clinic in the District yesterday morning, a young Northern Virginia woman arrived for her scheduled abortion but admitted afterward that she had been "a little confused" by the sudden HEW announcement.
"I thought they weren't going to pay for it," said the woman, who is 23, curantly unemployed and in need of Medicaid assistance to pay for the operation.
Asked what she would have done had Preterm not agreed to do the procedure anyway, the women said she would probably have been forced to have the baby and either have given it up for adoption or relied increasingly on welfare payments.
"To tell the truth at this point," she said, "I wouldn't have had the money" to do anything else.
Preterm and other hospitals and clinics in the city and Maryland will continue to be reimbursed for the abortions they perform on District and Maryland Medicaid-eligible women. But what recourse Virginia women will have is still unclear.
Preterm has long subsidized about one-fourth of its patients, according to a spokeswoman there, and the clinic also has a time-payment plan. More recently, it has been exploring the idea of setting up a private contribution fund "so we don't have to cut services to any women."
At the Hillcrest abortion clinic is Southeast, however, Joanna Cannon said that except for a few hardship cases patients will need "their own financial resources" to receive abortions if the District and Maryland stop paying for them.
About one-third of the clinic's ease-load is Medicaid recipients, she said, and their problems will be "thrown back in the government's lap because that's where the problem belongs."
Karen Mulhauser, director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said she feared the ban "will force poor women to find home remedies for self-induced abortions or else seek out unsafe, illegal abortions" who will perform the operations cheaply.