Parnell said the health care program for low-income children and pregnant women paid for "hundreds" of abortions, a statement disputed by the state senator who pushed the money through the Legislature.
The state health department said Friday that $384,000 out of Denali KidCare's $217 million budget last year went for "abortion related services" and 664 individuals received such services. That doesn't mean they received abortions since that covers anyone who tells the program they are thinking about having an abortion, said Bill Streur, deputy commissioner of the department.
"It may or may not result in abortion. It may be a sonogram, it may be counseling that they receive," he said.
The health department said women on Denali KidCare can have an abortion funded if a physician finds it to be "medically necessary." The state has no choice about that because the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that "if the state undertakes to fund medically necessary services for poor Alaskans, it may not exclude from that program women who medically require abortions."
Streur said he has a "rough idea" of how many abortions were performed but didn't want to say until he has firm numbers. He said his main staffer for sorting through the data was out this week and they'll try next week to get the numbers.
The $3 million Parnell vetoed would have allowed an estimated 1,300 additional children and 218 more pregnant women to be on Denali KidCare. It would have expanded eligibility of the program to cover households with income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, a threshold that's about $55,150 for a family of four. Proponents say that's the national standard and Parnell was giving up as much as $2 million in matching federal money with his veto.
About 40 people held a brief prayer vigil in support of Denali KidCare Friday outside the Atwood Building, where Parnell has his Anchorage office. It was put on by Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together, or AFACT.
"About three years ago, in many of the congregations we kept hearing 'Denali KidCare, it's too low. We work, we don't get health insurance, if I'm at 185 percent of the federal poverty level, I can't afford to buy health care for my kids,' " said Lisa Smith, AFACT board chair and pastor at Central Lutheran Church in Anchorage.
Ethan Berkowitz and Sen. Hollis French, Democrats who are running against Parnell for governor, were both at the event. Berkowitz said it's about health care and not abortion. If the issue for Parnell was really abortion he would have opposed all of Denali KidCare funding, Berkowitz said.
"It's inconsistent to say, 'Up to 175 percent of poverty it's OK to have access to full services, but between 175 and 200 percent it isn't.' So he's cherry picked here and that to me is wrong, because there are 1,300 kids who are going to be impacted here," he said.
Parnell said he could not allow state government funding of abortions to be expanded.
"I want to be able to provide those services. But if your governor doesn't stand for life and liberty, as he understands it in his conscience, then you don't have a governor," he said.
Ralph Samuels, a Republican running for governor, called Parnell's veto interesting timing. Parnell is running for election in a Republican primary contest where appealing to more conservative voters has benefits. Samuels said Parnell was a major force behind the bill to expand Denali KidCare, and he's surprised to see Parnell change his mind after saying he just found out it pays for abortions.
"How could you not know how the program works? The program is what it is and it's been around since he was in the Legislature. I don't know if there are some politics there or not," he said.
Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Friday that the governor had been aware of the issues surrounding the state being required by the courts to fund abortions, a matter the Legislature fought over for years. But she said Parnell did not realize until recently that funds from Denali KidCare in particular were going for that purpose. Leighow said Parnell wasn't the only one who didn't know. Senate Finance Committee co-chair Bert Stedman has also commented that he wasn't aware some Denali KidCare money was going to pay for abortions.
"(Parnell) was made aware of it recently and he changed his stance," Leighow said.
The program was created in 1998 with Parnell's support when he was in the state Senate. Records from the time show Parnell asked health commissioner Karen Perdue if the bill would expand eligibility for public funding of abortions. She answered that the purpose was prenatal care. She went on to say "federal Medicaid laws prohibited the kind of funding for abortions that could occur to those allowed in the Hyde Amendment. Therefore, under Medicaid itself, there were very limited situations where abortions could be preformed. These were mainly life threatening situations."
Parnell asked if any other programs in state government granted public funding for abortions, and she noted that the Legislature was working to try and prohibit state funding for abortions and nothing in the bill would change the situation.
The records show that 1998 meeting also included discussion of a letter of intent that was adopted by the state House "which stated that funding for this program was not intended to be spent on any abortion related services." Three years later the Alaska Supreme Court ruling meant the state had no choice in the matter.