Employers facing hurdles covering abortion travel costs
After the U.S. Supreme Court revoked the federal right to an abortion that’s been in place for half a century, companies like Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Walt Disney Co. pledged to cover travel costs for employees who live in states where the procedure is now illegal so they can terminate pregnancies.
But the companies gave scant or no details on how they’ll do this and it’s not clear if they’ll be able to do so legally, while protecting employees’ privacy and keeping them safe from prosecution.
“Most employers weren’t prepared for [Roe v. Wade] to be overturned and even those that were didn’t realize the law would literally be changed the next minute,” says Brian Kropp, a vice-president at consulting firm Gartner. “They’re trying to play catchup.”
Read: U.S. abortion ruling thrusts employers into divisive arena
Many companies announced plans to offer travel benefits without the infrastructure in place to make them work, he says, adding some are creating supplementary policies that employees can buy to cover abortion travel, while others are contacting insurers to see if travel can be added to their current plans. Others are trying to figure out how to offer a benefit without breaching employees’ privacy. “Are employees going to have to tell their manager they’re going to have to travel from Texas to California to have an abortion?”
The answer is no, but they/d likely have to tell human resources or a similar department that they’re pregnant and want to get an abortion, says Sharona Hoffman, a health law professor at Case Western Reserve University. The company or its health insurer would then provide money upfront or a reimbursement after the fact.
She calls the travel cost pledges a “generous benefit” from companies and says she wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a practice that more companies undertake — just without trumpeting it for fear of the backlash that can come with public statements on a divisive issue such as abortion.
Read: U.S. employers enhancing benefits plans with travel coverage for abortion
“It’s not necessarily altruistic. It also makes some sense for companies to not have a bunch of employees that are highly distressed because they have unwanted pregnancies and have to carry the child to term.”
For now, most big companies offering an abortion travel benefit will likely add it to existing health-care plans, says Jonathan Zimmerman, a partner with the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.
That’s the case at outdoor clothing company Patagonia Inc., which updated its health coverage last fall to add travel costs for employees after Texas’ law banning most abortions went into effect. Patagonia said abortion and travel costs are administered in the same manner as other medical services, ensuring confidentiality for employees.
Restaurant review company Yelp Inc. said its abortion travel benefit is also administered by its health insurance provider. Yelp has told its employees if they do use the travel benefit, the company won’t have access to the details of the service.
Read: Ontario joins Alberta, New Brunswick in making abortion pill available for free
Microsoft Corp. noted it already covers abortion and gender affirmation and has now extended the coverage to include travel expenses for “these and other lawful medical services” if they aren’t available in an employee’s home state.
Smaller companies may have fewer options. They typically buy health insurance for their employees from insurers that are subject to state regulations. Those companies have less flexibility to design benefits and they may operate in states that ban abortion.
Dr. Ami Parekh, chief health officer at health-care service provider Included Health Inc., says it’s “quite a scramble” right now for large employers to navigate this fast-moving landscape. “They’re moving as fast as they can. And I bet you they’re going to be nimble and change as needed as things come up.”
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Beyond the legal questions, abortion travel benefits also present some thorny workplace issues, says Kropp. Employees who don’t support abortion may be angry their company is paying for other employees’ travel, for example. Even those who do support abortion may question why the company isn’t paying them to travel for fertility treatments or transgender health care.
“My sense is most employers are trying to very quickly figure out what’s best for their employees and dependants,” says Parekh. “And not all employers want to spend the energy to be very public about that at this moment in time.”
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