HHS Hits California, Vermont Medical System Over Abortion Policies

December 17, 2020 Updated: December 17, 2020

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it will withhold at least $200 million in federal Medicaid funds from California in the first quarter of 2021 because the state is illegally forcing insurance companies and employers, including a Roman Catholic order of religious sisters, to cover abortion “without exclusion or limitation.”

The move comes as the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced on Dec. 16 a series of enforcement actions aimed at organizations it says are violating conscience-protection laws related to abortion. OCR, through its Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, is responsible for enforcing federal conscience statutes.

HHS said it has also referred the University of Vermont Medical Center to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement after an investigation of the Burlington-based facility’s violation of a bundle of laws known as the Church Amendments. OCR concluded the hospital unlawfully forced a nurse to assist in an elective abortion procedure over the nurse’s conscience-based objections and has refused to change its policies to prevent future coercion. The Justice Department is suing the facility on behalf of HHS.

OCR said California’s policy unlawfully mandates that all health care plans subject to regulation by the California Department of Managed Health Care pay for abortion without exclusion or limitation.

Because of California’s actions, health plan issuers were compelled to remove coverage exclusions and limitations regarding abortion coverage, which forced employer groups associated with more than 28,000 individuals out of plans that until that time had chosen not to cover elective abortions.

California’s mandate violates a federal anti-discrimination law known as the Weldon Amendment, which protects entities from being forced to provide, pay for, or provide coverage for abortions. California has refused to honor the Weldon Amendment, despite several demands that it comply with the law, according to OCR.

If California continues to disobey the law, HHS will dock it $200 million each quarter.

“Under President Trump, HHS has worked like never before to enforce laws Congress has passed to protect Americans’ religious freedom and conscience rights,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a press release.

“California and the University of Vermont Medical Center have violated federal conscience laws and refused to work with us to take corrective action, so we are now taking action to hold them to account.”

OCR Director Roger Severino added: “Entities that receive HHS funds should think twice before flouting federal law and refusing to come into compliance. … Whatever one thinks of the legality of abortion, no one should be punished for declining to pay for or assist in the taking of human life.”

The office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, decried the $200 million penalty, telling reporters it’s an attempt by the Trump administration “to score cheap political points,” and that the state “will continue to stand up for reproductive health and push back against this extreme presidential overreach.”

Newsom himself denounced Republicans on Twitter after the HHS announcement:

“Nothing like the ‘pro-life’ party eliminating healthcare during a GLOBAL PANDEMIC. California will survive without this $$ for now—but their frail, pathetic patriarchal system they are so desperate to protect won’t.”

Neal Goswami of the University of Vermont Medical Center, in an emailed statement sent to The Epoch Times, denied that the facility had engaged in wrongdoing.

“The UVM Medical Center is committed to meeting the medical needs of our patients, while respecting the religious and moral beliefs of our employees. Our opt-out policies and practices for employees who object to participating in certain medical procedures, including abortion, are strong and in full compliance with federal law.

“As Vermont’s academic, tertiary care center, we have an obligation to provide access to safe and legal reproductive health care to our patients who rely on us. Following previous direct discussions with HHS where we were told they would not be seeking additional federal enforcement, we were surprised and disappointed by this abrupt news, and will continue to stand up for the work we do, the people who do it, and the patients and families who seek our services.”

In another case, OCR said it had secured access for religious clergy in New York’s Mt. Sinai Health System during the current pandemic.

A Jewish organization filed a religious discrimination complaint alleging the hospital prevented spiritual leaders from accessing both COVID-19 and regular hospital units, despite requests for the delivery of kosher food and spiritual comfort. The hospital subsequently clarified its visitation policies to permit clergy visitation rights including exemptions for spiritual leaders who travel from out of state to be with “patients in imminent end-of-life circumstances.”

“We applaud the hospital for ensuring that it will treat the needs of the body without sacrificing the needs of the soul,” Severino said.