New Jersey already protects abortion rights. Now Democrats want to cover out-of-pocket costs, too

New Jersey's Democratic-led state government is considering legislation that would eliminate out-of-pocket costs for abortion.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

File photo: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature at the statehouse, in Trenton, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. New Jersey's Democrat-led state government is pushing to enact legislation to eliminate out-of-pocket costs for abortion. Murphy called for the legislation to pass before the summer. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Dawn Ericksen was struggling with an opioid addiction a dozen years ago when she got pregnant and realized she couldn’t keep herself safe, much less a baby. Working part-time, she couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars she would need for an abortion and had to turn to a trusted friend to help cover the costs.

Ericksen, a 43-year-old attorney from southern New Jersey who has been sober for 10 years, is now speaking out about her experience because she thinks women’s voices need to be heard.

“I knew it was the right choice for me. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean I want to shout it from the rooftops and tell everybody, hey, I’m in a tough position,” she said. “It wasn’t easy to kind of come hat in hand, so to speak, and say ‘This is something I need help with.’ It’s a very vulnerable place to be.”

Experiences like Ericksen’s are at the center of a renewed effort by New Jersey’s Democratic-led Legislature and governor, Phil Murphy, to bar women from having to pay out-of-pocket costs to get an abortion. New Jersey is among a group of Democratic-led states that are moving to reduce the barriers to abortion, even as many conservative states have been severely restricting a woman’s right to end her pregnancy since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

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New Jersey and nine other states require health insurers to cover abortion services, but it is the only state among that group that doesn’t bar out-of-pocket costs, according to KFF, a nonprofit that researches health care issues. In the governor’s annual address this month, Murphy called for an end to such costs.

The issue, according to proponents of the measure, is that even women with insurance coverage might not reach their deductible, which vary but often exceed $1,000. An abortion’s cost depends on several factors, including whether it’s medication-induced or surgical. A medication abortion typically costs $600-$800, while a surgical procedure could cost up to $2,000, according to Planned Parenthood.

“We don’t want those having to make the decision between paying for groceries or having the care that they need,” said Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, an executive with Planned Parenthood Action of New Jersey, which supports the legislation.

The second-term governor is pushing for the legislation after his party expanded its majority in the Legislature and in a presidential year in which Democrats hope that the abortion issue will buoy their candidates nationwide. It also coincides with a yearslong effort to expand abortion services in the state, as Democratic officials sought to blunt the impact of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe.

New Jersey has already enshrined abortion rights as law, increased funding for abortion services and required regulated health insurance plans to cover the procedure.

“New Jersey will always be a safe haven for reproductive freedom. Period,” Murphy told lawmakers recently. “I am asking you to join me in doing more to protect reproductive rights.”

Despite Democrats having full control of the state government, the bill’s prospects are unknown. The legislative session just began, and lawmakers will soon turn their attention to the state budget. The leaders of both legislative chambers support abortion rights, but it’s unknown how much passing the law would cost, how it would be funded and whether it could cause insurance premiums to rise.

California, for instance, eliminated insurance charges such as co-payments and deductibles in 2022 and the measure was expected to increase insurance premiums.

Teresa Ruiz, the New Jersey Senate’s majority leader, spoke passionately about expanding access to abortion. She also raised a practical point about the measure and said it’s likely to come in the context of a broader budget discussion.

“My daughter, who is 7, has less body autonomy in this country than my mother has had in her lifetime,” Ruiz said.

Legislative Republicans viewed the governor’s proposal skeptically. Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio said his party is focused on “pocketbook issues” that affect all residents, and GOP state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon called it a “red herring” issue because the law protects abortion in the state.

Ericksen, who described her path to sobriety as a slow and laborious journey, said she would ask lawmakers to consider not just the financial costs of ending out-of-pocket fees, but how it could help everyone.

“When we support vulnerable populations, our whole state benefits,” she said.

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