Agencies are rolling out reimbursement policies post-Dobbs—but how do they work?

While many have said they will help employees pay for care and/or travel, the means of doing so vary and can raise questions about employee privacy.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 6 min read

As abortion restrictions have ramped up over the last year and with Roe v. Wade now overturned, many agencies have been called to step up on the issue.

Some have taken a vocal stance in the form of ad campaigns, though many more, like WPP, Dentsu, and Wieden+Kennedy, have responded by adopting internal policies to reimburse employees traveling to receive care.

But the logistics of reimbursement vary by agency and, however well-meaning, can raise questions about data privacy and employer oversight. As laws change and potential legal threats mount for those seeking care, some told us agencies should offer more than just a willingness to pay.

The cost equation

The Martin Agency has employees in New York and Texas, but is headquartered in Virginia, where the governor is pursuing a 15-week ban following the Dobbs decision. The agency’s chief culture officer, Carmina Drummond, told us the agency started looking at ways to help employees access abortion care back in May and potentially adding to a list of benefits that includes things like IVF and egg freezing.

“It’s not for us to tell you what to do,” Drummond said. “It’s for us to be there to support your choices.”

Right now, Drummond said the procedure is covered for all employees through the agency’s insurance policy, but travel reimbursement is handled by the agency. She said there is no spending cap, but “reasonable travel expenses” must be preapproved by Martin’s talent resources group before being submitted via expense report.

But this is new territory for agencies. What happens if expenses are denied when reviewed by someone against abortion? Drummond said “that would not happen,” but they also haven’t had to deal with that yet. She added that such expenses “won’t be coded in any way that could be [traced] back to health.” When asked whether travel would ever be covered by insurance directly, Drummond said the agency was exploring plans with its broker.

The Martin Agency is owned by IPG, which is “updating its US healthcare benefits to provide funding for travel,” a spokesperson recently told Ad Age.

Petermayer, an independent agency based in Louisiana, where an outright ban was recently reinstated, also introduced a reimbursement policy in July. Under the policy, up to $1,500 will be reimbursed each year for employees or their dependents who travel at least 100 miles from home for care.

“For many employees, this circumstance arises for issues beyond (but including) abortion,” CEO Michelle Edelman told us in an email, adding that the agency took time to “truly think through what medical privacy really means” when crafting the policy.

Abortion, but not travel, is covered under the agency’s insurance policy. To receive travel reimbursement, employees must complete a statement about traveling for medical care and submit it to an HR manager. Once back, they must submit expense documents and a certification from their healthcare provider excusing them for work days missed, which are deducted from PTO or sick days.

Laurie Ohlsson, HR manager at Petermayer, said the agency is keeping an eye on whether its health plan will cover travel reimbursements directly. For now, only the HR manager and the assistant controller who sees the total amount being reimbursed are involved in the process.

Got you covered

Erika Seth Davies, CEO at Reproductive Health Investors Alliance (RHIA) Ventures—a VC company that tracks and works with companies to develop reproductive-care policies—told us that “we would not recommend” using expense reports “for any purpose” given potential privacy concerns.

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One of the companies RHIA works with is MMI Agency, which is based in Texas. CEO Maggie Malek told us that both travel and care are covered by its insurance policy and benefits extend to everyone on employees’ plans, including spouses and dependents.

“Why we wanted to go the insurance route is so employees don’t have to disclose to me, they don’t have to disclose to anyone,” Malek said. “They can just take care of their healthcare the way that they need to take care of their healthcare.”

Stagwell, which owns MMI, announced in June that it would “expand its travel network benefits to give employees access to the nearest approved reproductive-healthcare provider in a legally permissible way.” Beth Sidhu, chief brand and communications officer for the company, told us, “that benefit, which is managed by our healthcare providers, is consistent across the network.”

Had insurance not been an option, Malek said she would have probably chosen the expense-report route or used an outside company with funded programs, which is how MMI routed relief funds to anonymous employees after Hurricane Ike.

“The private sector is about to be the backstop on women and pregnant people accessing healthcare,” Davies said. But that may not be without risk: the Kaiser Family Foundation expects some states might try to “compel employers, plans, and providers to disclose information about an individual’s abortion.” Some states have already made moves signaling interest in trying to stop companies from providing abortion benefits.

Proactive, not reactive

Mary Buzbee is a senior copywriter at ad agency Barkley in Missouri, where there is a near-total ban on abortion and insurance coverage for the procedure. She called reimbursements a “band-aid” on LinkedIn, urging leaders to do more.

“So many times, agencies basically put out a creative brief and they’re like, ‘Let’s come up with a Cannes award-winning idea to solve this problem,’ when in reality, you shouldn’t be asking your employees to do the work for you. You should be using the connections you have at the top to be any sort of catalyst for change in the right direction,” she told us.

Davies agreed, saying that employers should be contacting policymakers to be “clear that public policies that will limit access threaten the health and well-being of workers, and they impact the talent pool.”

With the news moving quickly, Buzbee said she worries about people becoming numb to the issue. That’s why she said agencies, particularly those in protected states, need to “understand this sense of urgency and use their political capital to help change things.”

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