HHS warns it will strip California of funding over state's abortion coverage mandate

Alex Azar
Alex Azar, secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, speaking at the Values Voter Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. |

The Trump administration warned California that it will revoke federal funding on grounds that it is violating federal law by requiring all health insurance plans in the state to cover abortion, a regulation that also impacts church healthcare plans. 

The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights announced last Friday — the same day as the 2020 March for Life — that it issued a “notice of violation” to California over its abortion coverage mandate enacted in 2014.

OCR warned that the state “cannot impose universal abortion coverage mandates on health insurance plans and issuers in violation of federal conscience laws.”

According to an HHS press release, California has “deprived” 28,000 people of plans that did not cover elective abortion but are not required to cover abortion. 

The OCR investigated two complaints that California had engaged in unlawful discrimination resulting from California’s Department of Managed Health Care’s August 2014 order that all health plans offer elective abortion coverage.  

The complaints against the rule came from a Catholic order of nuns called the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit and Skyline Wesleyan Church, a Southern California megachurch that was once led by conservative pastor Jim Garlow

The organizations contend that the law forces them to violate their religious convictions against abortion. 

The OCR’s investigation concluded that the California mandate violates the Weldon Amendment, a provision that bars government agencies from requiring healthcare providers to pay for or refer patients for abortions. 

The amendment states that no funds made available by the Consolidated Appropriations Act may be granted to agencies or state governments that subject institutional or healthcare entities to “discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

HHS has ordered the state to inform OCR within 30 days of the steps it will take to correct its violations. If HHS does not receive "sufficient assurance" that California will come into compliance with federal law within 30 days, it could result in "limitations on continued receipt of certain HHS funds."

“Once again, President Trump’s administration is delivering on his promise to protect human life and all Americans’ freedom of conscience,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. “Under President Trump, HHS has been vigorously enforcing the statutes Congress passed to protect Americans’ consciences and institutionalizing these protections within the department’s civil rights work.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra vowed in a tweet that the state will fight the HHS notice “by any means necessary.” 

“Make no mistake, this attack on California is just one more attempt to chip away at reproductive rights and access to abortion,” Becerra wrote.

In a press release, Becerra accused the administration of “political grandstanding.” 

“Today, Donald Trump is using the official levers of government to advance his political agenda,” Becerra argued. “Sound familiar? In California, we will continue to protect our families’ access to healthcare, including women’s constitutional right to abortion. Nothing changes.” 

OCR Director Roger Severino said in a statement that no American “should be forced to pay for or cover other people’s abortions.”

“We are putting California on notice that it must stop forcing people of goodwill to subsidize the taking of human life, not only because it’s the moral thing to do, but because it’s the law,” Severino, who formerly served with the conservative think tanks The Heritage Foundation, stressed. 

The HHS notice was praised by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential nonprofit legal group devoted to defending religious freedom rights. 

“For years, California’s Department of Managed Health Care has demonstrated hostility to churches by forcing them to pay for elective abortions,” ADF Legal Counsel Denise Harle said in a statement. “The agency has unconstitutionally targeted religious organizations, repeatedly collaborated with pro-abortion advocates and failed to follow the appropriate administrative procedures to institute its unprecedented mandate.”

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