SLC may start paying travel for out-of-state abortions for its employees. Will the plan last?

Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s plan also would offer city workers up to $500 for a swath of products and services, including ski passes, student loans and gym memberships.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) City Hall in Salt Lake City in 2022. Mayor Erin Mendenhall's fiscal 2024 budget includes a program that would reimburse city employees for a swath of expenses, including those incurred when traveling out of state for abortions or other medical procedures.

Starting next year, Salt Lake City could begin reimbursing its employees who travel out of state for abortions and other forms of medical care.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s fiscal 2024 budget includes a proposal to create “lifestyle spending accounts,” a pot of money city employees can tap to pay for an expansive list of products and services, from ski passes and student loans to gym memberships and travel for medical care.

“We created this policy really based on our own employees’ needs,” Mendenhall said in an interview, “and wanting to ensure that they can provide for whatever their family’s unique needs are.”

The fund would not cover medical procedures themselves, the mayor said, but would apply to travel expenses incurred to access care. Mendenhall’s plan would give employees up to $500 to cover eligible costs.

Asked specifically whether the money would cover travel expenses for employees seeking abortion services out of state, the mayor said it would “reimburse for any health care, medical-related travel need.”

Mendenhall said employees could use the fund to pay for travel to places that treat rare forms of cancer, to renowned medical centers such as the Mayo Clinic or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, or — if they had transferred to the city for work — to their previous provider to finish ongoing treatment.

“These are real-life scenarios,” she said, “that this account could help reimburse the travel expenses related to those health care needs.”

Wary of Capitol Hill?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Capitol in February 2023. Conservative state lawmakers previously have struck down progressive policies adopted by progressive Salt Lake City leaders.

Mendenhall’s avoidance of the word “abortion” comes amid decades of tension between Salt Lake City and the Legislature. Officials in City Hall have long seen progressive policies in Utah’s blue-leaning capital smacked down by a red-dominating Capitol Hill.

Representatives for Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and state Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said they had not heard of Mendenhall’s proposal and had not had a chance to review it.

Public funding for abortion is illegal in Utah, except in certain cases, including those of rape and incest.

Mendenhall said the city program’s introduction — coming about a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that had protected the constitutional right to abortion nationwide for nearly 50 years — was merely a coincidence.

In Utah, a trigger law that would ban abortion with limited exceptions in the Beehive State was temporarily blocked days after the high court decided abortion laws would be left to the states. Legislators expanded that law earlier this year to prohibit abortion clinics. The new measure was also put on hold.

It is now up to the state Supreme Court to decide whether the law conflicts with the Utah Constitution. Meanwhile, abortion remains legal in Utah up to 18 weeks, with some exceptions after that limit.

In a statement, Planned Parenthood Association of Utah’s president and CEO, Kathryn Boyd, lauded the city’s proposal as an “ultra-flexible benefit” that gives employees and their families access to necessary health care.

“Everyone wants assurances they can care for their family members, no matter what, and Salt Lake City is responding to this need,” she said. “We hope this new benefit catches on in other communities.”

Program would keep SLC competitive

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, speaking in January 2023, says the proposed reimbursement program will help the city remain competitive as an employer.

According to city staffers, Salt Lake City is likely the first public sector entity in the state to consider offering a lifestyle spending account to employees.

An employee advisory board told the administration it would like to see reimbursements for child care, the mayor said. But because many city workers don’t have kids, the human resources department proposed a wide program to cover a swath of expenses.

Mendenhall said programs like the one she is proposing help keep the city competitive as an employer. Utah’s capital, she said, competes with the private sector for workers more than it does with other governments.

Committing to reimbursing those who may need to travel elsewhere for an abortion isn’t entirely new in the Beehive State.

This year, Michelle Hyncik, president of the National Women’s Soccer League’s newly re-formed Utah Royals, said the club has always had a policy that allowed women throughout the organization to be reimbursed for costs if a “certain medical procedure” isn’t provided in Utah.

“From our standpoint,” team co-owner Ryan Smith has said, “it was important across all of our organizations that that medical benefit was available.”

Council Chair Darin Mano said Salt Lake City wants to be the best employer in the state and offer benefits that make its workers’ lives better.

“It’s important that employees are given the tools that they need,” he said, “in order to deal with life’s challenges.”

The program still needs the nod from the City Council next month to be included in the final budget. Mano said unless the public voices strong opposition to the proposal, he expects the council to adopt the benefit.

If approved, employees would be able to request reimbursements starting in January.

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