PEORIA — Abortion for any reason has been covered by Medicaid in Illinois since the beginning of 2018, but a lot of people who need the service don’t know that.
This week, a billboard went up in Peoria on War Memorial Drive near Glen Avenue with the message "Abortion is healthcare. It’s covered by Illinois Medicaid." It’s one of five the Chicago Abortion Fund has erected across the state, including three in Chicago and one in Champaign.
"We are receiving a lot of calls for help from people who didn’t know that the Medicaid card they already have covers care," said Megan Jeyifo, director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, a not-for-profit agency that offers financial, logistical and emotional support to people seeking abortion services. "It’s frustrating because a lot of people are delaying making appointments because they are trying to come up with the money."
Although the billboard in Peoria went up without a hitch, organizers had trouble in Champaign, where the first vendor they hired declined the job.
"They had a problem with us defining abortion as health care," said Jeyifo. A second vendor agreed to do the job, and the billboard went up in Champaign as planned.
The Peoria billboard is already generating interest. Ken Goins, president of Central Illinois Right to Life, was alerted to the campaign by a friend in Chicago.
"Well, one thing: Abortion is definitely not health care," said Goins. "It’s just a sad thing that neighboring states have to come over here, and that Illinois is known for its cooperation in regards to abortion. This is something we’re going to try to continue to fight."
Goins said that if members of his group can legally stand on the property beneath the sign, they will likely do a protest there.
"I have a contact in Chicago, and they are doing that same thing," he said.
The Chicago Abortion Fund has been planning the campaign for about a year. It was one of several organizations that worked to get House Bill 40, which provided Medicaid funding for abortions, passed in Illinois. Volunteers who field calls from women all over the state were frustrated that so few people know about it. One call in particular provided a tipping point, said Jeyifo.
"A woman from rural Illinois called us in a panic because she was 11 weeks pregnant. She had known since she was six weeks, but she was trying to come up with the money. When she finally had enough to go to her appointment, her truck broke down. She was like, ‘I can’t get to the appointment. The money I would have used for the appointment I need to use to fix my truck to get to the appointment, and now what am I going to do?’" said Jayifo.
After the caseworker asked the caller a few questions, it became clear that she had had the financial means to pay for the abortion all along. She was on Medicaid.
"We told her, ‘Hey, this card you have in your wallet right now? You can take it to the clinic which you already had an appointment at, take the money that you saved for your appointment and get your truck fixed.’ She could have accessed care weeks earlier, but she was delaying ’cause she was trying to come up with the money," said Jeyifo.
Illinois is one of only 16 states using their own Medicaid funds to pay for abortion, an effort to sidestep the 1977 Hyde Amendment which bans the use of federal funds for abortion coverage through Medicaid except in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment. Illinois became one of the most abortion-friendly states in the Midwest when Gov. Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 40 in 2017.
"I believe that a woman living with limited financial means should not be put in a position where she has to choose something different than a woman of higher income would be able to choose," said Rauner shortly before signing the bill into law.
Education was only one of the reasons why the Chicago Abortion Fund decided to do a statewide billboard campaign. Organizers also want the public to start seeing abortion as a necessary component of a comprehensive reproductive health care program, said Jeyifo.
"We’re trying to destigmatize the word abortion and affirm that it’s health care," she said. "We don’t think abortion is a dirty word. When you have access to abortion, you can determine the path of your life, and whether or not you want to start or grow your own family, it’s really important."
The billboards were also designed to keep the issue in the public eye because abortion rights are constantly being challenged, said Jeyifo.
"I think there are 27 anti-abortion bills pending in the General Assembly. So we still have a lot of work to do, and we need to get people energized."
Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.