HHS to withhold Medicaid funding from California over abortion coverage mandate

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks at a White House event, 'Life is Winning: Celebrating 4 Years of Pro-Life Accomplishments,' Dec. 16, 2020. | Screenshot: YouTube/The White House

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced that his department was taking action against California and a hospital in Vermont that implemented policies violating the conscience rights of those opposed to abortion. 

Azar was among many notable speakers at a White House event, called “Life is Winning: Celebrating 4 Years of Pro-Life Accomplishments,” hosted by Vice President Mike Pence Wednesday. During his speech, Azar highlighted how the Trump administration was “protecting conscience rights more aggressively than any previous administration in history.”

“The HHS Office for Civil Rights, led by Roger Severino, established its first ever Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, tasked with making sure our nation’s conscience and religious freedom laws are never again treated like second-class rights,” he said. 

He went on to announce that $200 million in federal Medicaid funds would be withheld from California for the first quarter of 2021 due to the state's refusal to amend its policy "imposing universal abortion coverage mandates on health insurance."

“Unless California amends its policies, we will seek to withhold an additional $200 million every quarter until it complies,” he added as the crowd erupted into applause. As explained in an HHS press release, California’s actions violate the Weldon Amendment, which “protects entities from being forced to provide, pay for, or provide coverage for abortions.”

“It’s wrong that the Trump administration would threaten Californians’ health just to score cheap political points — and during a global pandemic. We will continue to stand up for reproductive health and push back against this extreme presidential overreach,” vowed Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., in response to the news.

Should former vice president Joe Biden assume the presidency next month as projected, it is likely that his HHS Secretary would restore the $200 million in Medicaid funding. Biden has selected California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, an outspoken supporter of abortion, as his pick to lead the agency.

On a “separate conscience violation issue,” Claire Murray, principal deputy associate attorney general at the Department of Justice, announced at the event that its civil rights division "sued to stop a hospital in Vermont from violating the rights of healthcare providers who followed their consciences and refused to assist in performing abortions."

“This suit is based on an investigation conducted by Roger Severino and the HHS Office of Civil Rights,” which “uncovered that the University of Vermont Medical Center had forced a Catholic nurse to participate in an elective abortion even though the doctor performing the abortion knew that the nurse had placed her name on the hospital’s list of conscientious objectors and even though other nurses without conscientious objections were available to assist instead,” Murray explained.

“Our suit alleges that the hospital actually misled the nurse into believing that she was scheduled to assist in another … unobjectionable procedure. It was only when she arrived in the operating room that the physician performing the abortion turned to her and said, ‘Please don’t hate me for this.’”

According to Murray, the lawsuit also accuses the hospital of adopting “discriminatory policies that authorize it to schedule conscientious objectors to assist with abortions even after they have submitted written objections and they ... repeatedly scheduled nurses whose names were on the objector list for abortion procedures.”

The hospital maintains that it did nothing wrong. “I want to be very clear that we are very sensitive to our employees’ religious and moral beliefs, and we … are very confident that we have a policy that protects our employers’ rights while being certain to offer all legal and safe procedures for parents that seek our care,” said Dr. Stephen Leffler, president and CEO of the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Other speakers at the White House event included Pence, Brooke Rollins, the acting director of the White House Domestic Policy Council who also served as moderator for the event, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and the presidents of the pro-life organizations Susan B. Anthony List and March for Life Action.

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