“We are taking enforcement action against the state of California for imposing universal abortion coverage mandates on health insurance in the state,” Azar said. “We have informed California that this policy clearly violates federal conscience laws, but the state refuses to fix the issue and comply.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, accused the Trump administration of looking to “threaten Californians’ health just to score cheap political points — and during a global pandemic,” vowing to “continue to stand up for reproductive health and push back against this extreme presidential overreach.”
Azar added that his department would seek to continue to withhold $200 million for each additional quarter that the state does not comply — though it is unclear how, as Azar will be in his current role for less than a month of 2021 and President-elect Joe Biden’s administration appears unlikely to pursue a continuation of the policy.
CNN has reached out to the University of Vermont Medical Center for comment. The medical center has contended in the past that the nurse’s allegations are inaccurate and that it was willing to work with HHS’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on further supporting employees’ religious rights as well as patients’ legal rights.
The two measures re-affirm the administration’s continued focus on health care providers’ religious and moral objections to controversial health care procedures, such as abortion, under President Donald Trump. The department created a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in January 2018.
When asked about the timing of the California action given the outgoing administration, HHS Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said on a press call Wednesday that “conscience rights aren’t up for partisan debate. It should not matter who is president. It should not matter who’s the director of the office for civil rights, whether it’s me or somebody else — the laws that Congress has passed on a bipartisan basis deserve to be enforced.”
When asked by CNN about Becerra’s defense, Severino said that the California religious groups who took issue with the abortion requirement “are the real victims hurt here, and it’s up to the state to fix it.”
“Whatever method they choose to address the issues raised by the complainants there, we’re not going to dictate them for them what is the precise method to make sure that people who want abortion-free coverage under the law and get an abortion-free coverage under the law,” he said.
Severino did not address CNN’s question about the timing of cutting $200 million in Medicaid funding in the midst of 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 the dwindling Trump presidency, “politically, practically, it’s an empty threat, but legally it’s a real threat.”
“When you’re starting up a whole brand new agency, standing up whole divisions, they’re walking into a deluge of issues,” she said of the Biden administration encountering the California policy, adding that “it may be justifiable to seek (court) protection so that nothing can happen. Because turning the wheels and turning off the wheels and reversing course inside an agency is a complicated thing procedurally and legally to do.”