Kent County Commissioners
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) -- In a unanimous decision Kent County Commissioners voted Tuesday morning to remove abortions from employee benefit packages. Despite it being a controversial issue, the legislative and human resources committee vote was 9 to 0 to remove elective abortions as a covered benefit from one of the county's two medical insurance plans.
County administrator Daryl Delabbio called the benefit "inconsistent with the values and wishes of a large majority of Kent County citizens."
7th District Stan Ponstein says elective abortions have been covered in employee benefit packages for maybe as long as 20 years, but says it was buried in the fine print and easy to overlook. The issue is getting the the Board of Commissioners' full attention now.
"We feel like the majority of Kent county residents and the majority of the Kent County Commission believes this elective shouldn't be part of the health care policy," said Ponstein. "Last winter, early spring, I along with a couple of other commissioners read the article about the Kalamazoo County Commission. They had the same issue come up. So we've been working on it since then. We were in negotiations with some of the bargaining units. Some people thought this would cloud the issue and we really didn't want to do that. It is a stand alone issue. It is not something we want to bargain. We don't want this issue to be if you do this we will do that."
During the committee meeting several commissioners weighed in on the importance of the issue.
2nd district commissioner Tom Antor said "I was appalled to think that my money, my tax payer dollars, was being sued for this. It makes me sick."
Pro-life democrat Bob Synk says he believes this action will encourage employees faced with an unwanted pregnancy not to pursue an abortion.
"It is my belief that this action will not result in any pregnant woman being able to obtain an abortion she wants. I believe it will result in couples avoiding unwanted pregnancies because they will take more seriously their responsibility over their own reproduction," said Synk.
Opponents bombarded commissioners with E-mails and letters voicing objection to the decision, saying it threatens a woman's right to have a safe and legal abortion.
Part of one letter read "access to a safe, legal, high quality abortion is very important to me."
In response, Antor said "well safe, high quality abortion is an oxymoron. There is nothing safe about two individuals entering an abortion clinic and only one of them coming out. There is nothing safe for the baby in the process of an abortion. That is the way I feel. How can I feel any other way and support anything other that what I am supporting knowing that this is murder.?"
With such a polarizing issue as abortion at the heart of this, both sides made their feelings known. During the committee meeting one woman said to commissioners, "I'm appalled that he commission would be involved in such blatant political wrangling. It is about bodily integrity and a woman's right and to unnecessarily burden that is disgraceful."
Ponstein says a lot of people have questioned the timing which is right before the election. However he says, for him, this is not about politics.
"All we are saying is that if you want an abortion you are going to pay for it yourself. It is an elective under the coverage. There are a lot of electives that people choose to do that arena's covered by medical insurance," he said. "I know on my personal health plan there are some electives I have to pay for myself and if I choose to do them then it comes out of my pocket. It is part of a bigger issue is this something tax payers should be funding."
Due to privacy issues, he couldn't say exactly how many employees have used the benefit but believes the number to be somewhere between 10 to 15 over the past decade. He says it is impossible to say how much, if any, the county will save by removing the benefit
"It is one part of a big insurance policy. Whether you can put a financial amount on that I don't know but whether it is a dollar we save or $10,000 it doesn't matter. It is a process a lot of commissioners feel we shouldn't be doing," said Ponstein.
From here the County Administrator will immediately ask each collective bargaining unit to have employees voluntarily remove the benefit. If they don't the administrator is directed to remove it as a benefit during the next bargaining session.
Pat DeJong, president of UAW 2600, The county's largest union, said he will take this to his membership but says this should have been brought up during normal bargaining sessions to eliminate the cost involved with scheduling a vote.
By Angela Cunningham