KC can reimburse travel and abortion care costs for city employees

In this file photo from Tuesday, June 4, 2019, a family planning clinic is seen in St. Louis.

In this file photo from Tuesday, June 4, 2019, a family planning clinic is seen in St. Louis.

Associated Press file photo

Criminalizing reproductive rights will perpetuate an unjust system and worsen racial health disparities, Kansas City Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw said as the council approved two bills Thursday to support those rights.

“The system has failed us for years,” said Parks-Shaw, District 5.

The first order, which passed 10-2 at Thursday’s meeting, could reimburse city employees for health care-related travel expenses outside of Kansas City. Council members Heather Hall, District 1, and Dan Fowler, District 2, voted no.

The council also unanimously passed a resolution declaring that reproductive rights are human rights. Both passed through the same-day adoption process, which requires a supermajority of votes.

Kansas City leaders voted on abortion legislation six days after the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion rights and Missouri’s trigger ban went into effect.

Abortion, Parks-Shaw said, is an essential part of health care. And this has an impact on the health of mothers and babies. A 2021 study found that an abortion ban would lead to an increase in pregnancy-related deaths

Since last year, nine black babies in Kansas City have died for three white babies, according to the Kansas City Health Department. Nationally, black mothers are three times more likely to die than white mothers from complications in pregnancy or childbirth, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“That’s how systemic racism works,” Parks-Shaw said. “Directly or indirectly, explicitly or not. This results in policies or institutional structures that hurt Blacks and Browns, and those living in low-income areas, perpetuating and increasing the inequalities that began with the imports of Blacks into America as slaves in 1619 and which continue to persist to this day.

Health coverage for municipal employees

Legislation approved Thursday directs City Manager Brian Platt to negotiate city insurance plans. The health system board, which oversees health care benefits for city employees, will then make its own recommendations. Any changes will require additional approval from City Council.

The law does not provide an exact dollar amount that would be made available to employees. Instead, they could be reimbursed once a year for travel expenses for health care outside the city limits, because “recent barriers have been imposed on access to comprehensive reproductive health care and complete”.

Nearly all abortions are banned in Missouri following the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion last week striking down the federal right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade of 1973. The Missouri ban does not include exceptions for rape or incest, but does for medical emergencies. Many Missourians travel to Kansas for abortions, which accounts for 44% of all abortions performed in the state in 2021.

Only one clinic in Missouri — St. Louis-area Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services — offered abortion services before the ban was enacted.

There are two clinics near Kansas City across the state line, both in Overland Park.

Kansas voters will decide in August whether to amend the state constitution to allow state lawmakers to approve a ban.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said the election is where the sense of urgency comes into play, as employees may not have access to care near the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Lucas said the city is working to ensure employees still have that access.

“It is important that we uphold women’s right to choose access to care and that we ensure that our employees continue to have the same access to reproductive health, because I believe it is vital for the health , and we’re making sure they have it no matter what happens in Missouri, or even Kansas in five weeks,” Lucas said before the meeting.

The ordinance specifies that she will not be paid for by taxpayer-generated funds, such as the city’s general revenue.

Fowler, who voted against the order, said he wants it to be heard by a board committee first. Hall, who was also a no, said she thinks the city already has great employee coverage.

“I just believe local government should stay out of private medical decisions,” Hall said.

Lucas said he hopes Kansas City can set an example for other regional leaders.

Kansas City’s decision follows an order introduced in St. Louis last week that would use federal COVID-19 relief funds for a $1 million “reproductive equity fund.” These funds would be used for logistical support such as travel; the money would not fund abortion procedures.

St. Louis’s law, unlike Kansas City’s, is not limited to just city employees.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said the city expects to be prosecuted.

Lucas said the way the Kansas City legislation was drafted “does not welcome a legal challenge.”

The new benefit does not come into effect immediately. Lucas said it starts with negotiations with the health system board. Then the open registration could be extended.

“I hope more than anything, however, that this is a model and a sign for women in Kansas City and throughout our region, that no matter what changes in the state legislature or in the House of state, we will continue to ensure that we ‘advocate for access to quality reproductive care and safe reproductive care,’ Lucas said. “That’s why we are taking these steps today.”

“Form of Discrimination”

The resolution approved by the city council states that “reproductive rights are fundamental human rights and the criminalization of access to reproductive rights is a form of discrimination against women, girls and others at risk of becoming pregnant”.

Hall was absent in the 11-0 vote on the resolution.

Councilman Kevin O’Neill, District 1 at-large, said he supports the resolution.

“I think the problem we have in America is that men aren’t held responsible for women’s pregnancy,” O’Neill said. “The whole burden is on the woman. Until we find a way to put everyone on the same set of responsibilities, I think it’s hard to say that only the woman is going to suffer.

Councilman Eric Bunch, District 4, said men “need to stop getting in between a woman’s health decisions and her doctor.” And while the resolution is mostly symbolic, Bunch added, it’s important the city says it supports women and their access to care.

Fowler, who has said he is Roman Catholic and adopted, said if abortion rights existed in 1954, it may not be here today. Fowler said her morals told her that a healthy mother should carry a healthy child to term and if that child should not be with that family, the child should be given to another. However, he says, that’s not always the case.

“I don’t know where the line is. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know where the line is,” Fowler said. “What I’ve come to reconcile in my own mind is one thing I know: and that’s that it’s not for me to tell somebody else what to do. I can only live according to my own moral compass.

This story was originally published June 30, 2022 5:47 p.m.

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Cortlynn Stark covers town hall with a focus on fairness for the Kansas City Star. She joined The Star in January 2020 as a breaking news reporter. Cortlynn studied journalism and Spanish at Missouri State University.

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