The Reagan administration's chief personnel officer yesterday abandoned efforts to impose strict limits on abortion coverage in health plans affecting about 7 percent of the federal work force.
Confronted with lawsuits by two federal employe unions and a judge's order in a third case supporting nonemergency abortion insurance coverage, the Office of Personnel Management yesterday notified the unions it would accept their health insurance plans with general abortion coverage.
OPM director Donald J. Devine said last night that yesterday's decision affects only four out of 126 health benefit plans for federal employes. This means, he said, that plans for more than 90 pecent of the employes will not be offering general abortion coverage in 1982.
"I don't feel 100 percent is necessary in politics," Devine said. He said he feels that OPM had accomplished its goal of persuading most insurance carriers "that in a period of budget cutbacks abortion coverage is a good candidate for reduction."
Devine declared in September that the federal government, which had helped finance 17,000 abortions through insurance plans last year, would no longer pay for that procedure except in cases where the woman's life was in danger. He warned insurance carriers that he would exclude them from the federal employe health program unless they severely limited abortion benefits.
He said yesterday he did not consider his demand an ultimatum but a "negotiating position."
Two weeks after his demand, federal Judge Gerhard A. Gesell ruled in a case brought by the American Federation of Government Employees that Devine had exceeded his authority in unilaterally limiting abortion benefits. He said Devine could not justify his claim that the benefits were curbed for budget reasons, adding that Devine had been "prompted primarily by ideological considerations."
OPM general counsel Joseph A. Morris said the decision to allow the coverage has been made "reluctantly." Morris said OPM still believes that the benefits should be limited both as part of the "war on costs" and in light of the Reagan administration's policy statements against federal funding of nonemergency abortions.
Legal challenges to the limitations on abortion coverage, as well as lawsuits attacking overall budget cuts, had drastically slowed down completion of 1982 employe health benefit contracts, which must be signed by Friday, Korten said.
Attorneys for the unions characterized OPM's action as an important victory.
"He Devine never offered us any rationale at all for striking abortion from the 1982 plans ," said Sharyn Danch, an attorney for the National Treasury Employees Union, which had filed a suit in federal court. "We were left with the conclusion that it was his personal opinion that federal money should not be used for abortion."
Both the NTEU and the National Federation of Federal Employees, which also sued Devine over abortion coverage, were notified by OPM yesterday that their plans would be accepted with abortion coverage. The other unions expected to offer that coverage are AFGE and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association.
Despite the unions' victory claims, their lawyers noted that an amendment pending in the Senate could eliminate general abortion coverage once and for all.
The legislation, proposed by Rep. John M. Ashbrook (R-Ohio) as an amendment to an appropriation bill, was passed by the House last July but was deleted in September by the Senate Appropriations Committee.