Trump administration says it will withhold $ 200 million in California Medicaid funding because of required abortion insurance

“We are taking enforcement action against the state of California to impose universal abortion insurance mandates on health insurance policies in the state,” Azar said. “We have informed California that this policy is clearly in violation of federal laws of conscience, but the state is refusing to resolve the issue and comply with it.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, accused the Trump administration of “ threatening the health of Californians just to score cheap political points – and ‘vowed’ to continue championing reproductive health during a global pandemic and pushing back against this extreme presidential scope. “

Azar added that his department would try to continue withholding $ 200 million for each additional quarter that the state fails to comply with – although it’s unclear how, given that Azar will fill his current role less than a month in 2021 and the President-elect Joe It seems unlikely that the Biden administration will pursue a continuation of the policy.

At the same event, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Claire McCusker Murray announced that earlier Wednesday, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice had sued the University of Vermont Medical Center after the agency concluded that a nurse had been forced to participate in an abortion in the center, despite her objections.

CNN has contacted the University of Vermont Medical Center for comment. The medical center has claimed in the past that the nurse’s allegations are false and that it was willing to work with the HHS ‘Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to further support the religious rights of both workers and the public. legal rights of patients.

The two measures reaffirm that the government continues to focus on healthcare providers’ religious and moral objections to controversial health care procedures, such as abortion, under President Donald Trump. The department established a Conscience and Religious Freedom Department in January 2018.

In 2019, the agency issued a so-called rule of conscience, allowing health professionals who cite moral or religious reasons to refrain from providing certain medical procedures, such as abortion, sterilization, and assisted suicide. Proponents of reproductive rights argued that the rule would harm people in the LGBTQ community. They feared an argument of religious freedom would be used to justify endangering patients, and a federal judge in New York last year blocked the rule’s enactment.

When asked about the timing of the action in California, given the outgoing government, Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, said in a press call on Wednesday that “rights of conscience are not the subject of partisan debate. make up who the president is. It doesn’t matter who is the director of the civil rights office, whether it is me or someone else – the laws passed by Congress on a bipartisan basis deserve to be enforced. ”

The OCR has long been in touch with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra – Biden’s pick as the upcoming Secretary of Health and Human Services – about California abortion insurance. Becerra’s office said Wednesday afternoon it had “received nothing official from HHS on this matter.”
OCR found in January that California’s requirement that state-regulated health plans cover abortions “discriminated against health care plans and publishers who would or otherwise limit or exclude abortion coverage in their plan products.” The department ruled that a violation of the Weldon Amendment, which prohibits federal funding to a program or state government that “ subjects any institutional or individual health care entity to discrimination on the grounds that the health care entity does not cover, pays and does not provide coverage. of, or refer to abortions. “
Becerra responded with a letter in February claiming that in 2016 OCR determined that “protections under the Weldon amendment only extend to health care entities” and that in 2015 California had granted an exemption to the only health care entity that requested it. “Given this fact, as OCR itself has acknowledged, California has not subjected any health care facility to any rules of conduct restricted by the Weldon Amendment,” Becerra wrote at the time.

When asked by CNN about Becerra’s defense, Severino said the California religious groups who are contesting the abortion requirement are “the real victims who are injured here, and it’s up to the state to fix it.”

“Whichever method they choose to address the issues raised by the complainants there, we are not going to dictate to them the exact method of ensuring that people who want abortion-free coverage under the law and abortion-free coverage under the law, ”he said.

Severino did not answer CNN’s question about the timing of cutting $ 200 million in Medicaid funding amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University who worked for former President Bill Clinton, said that in light of Trump’s declining presidency, “it is a political, practically empty threat, but a real one from a legal point of view. “

“When you start a whole new agency and start up entire divisions, they run into a torrent of trouble,” she said of the Biden government running into California policy, adding that “it may be justified to have (court) protection so nothing can happen. Because turning the wheels and disengaging the wheels and reversing the course within an agency is a complicated matter, procedural and legal. “