White House, California Spar Over Abortion Coverage Mandate

(CN) – A Trump administration move to stop California from requiring health insurers to cover abortions has drawn a sharp riposte from California’s political leadership.

“Women’s health should never be dangled as bait for the sake of political grandstanding,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement, signaling the inevitability of yet another legal fight with the administration. “Today, Donald Trump is using the official levers of government to advance his political agenda. Sound familiar? In California, we will continue to protect our families’ access to healthcare, including women’s constitutional right to abortion. Nothing changes.”

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Roger Severino, director of the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday morning that California has 30 days to repeal a 2013 law that mandates insurance coverage for abortions.

“California wants to provide abortion services, it can do so. What the state is not free to do is force people to pay for other people’s abortions,” Severino said, indicating the department will withhold HHS funding from the state if it refuses to comply.

California’s abortion coverage mandate, adopted in August 2014 by the state’s Department of Managed Health Care, was challenged by Skyline Wesleyan Church and the Catholic women’s group Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit. The Skyline case, in which the lower court ruled in favor of California, is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. An appellate court also ruled in the state’s favor in the missionary group’s case, and the San Francisco Chronicle reported the California Supreme Court declined to take it up.

Severino said Health and Human Services has found California to be in violation of a federal law called the Weldon amendment, which forbids federal money from going to states that discriminate against health insurers, hospitals and other “health care entities” that do not provide or pay for abortions.

But Governor Gavin Newsom countered that California’s mandate is not illegal, noting HHS found California did not violate the law in 2016.

“Despite a federal opinion four years ago confirming California’s compliance with the Weldon amendment, the Trump administration would rather rile up its base to score cheap political points and risk access to care for millions than do what’s right,” Newsom said in an emailed statement. “California will continue to protect a woman’s right to choose, and we won’t back down from defending reproductive freedom for everybody – full stop.”

The administration’s latest clash with California comes as the state has moved to strengthen women’s reproductive rights. Last year, Newsom signed Senate Bill 24, which required all public universities in California to make abortion medication available to students by 2023.

“As other states and the federal government go backward, restricting reproductive freedom, in California we are moving forward, expanding access and reaffirming a woman’s right to choose,” Newsom said at the time.

He also signed a joint letter with Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Washington state Governor Jay Inslee asking other state leaders to enact laws that protect reproductive rights.

“In the absence of federal leadership on this issue, states must step up and put in place their own protections – both in statute and in their state constitutions, and through the expansion of family planning and education – to defend every American’s right to reproductive freedom,” their letter said.

Under Severino’s leadership, Health and Human Service’s law enforcement arm has expanded its role as a bulwark of conscience and religious freedom.

In November, two federal judges blocked another of its rules that would have expanded protections for health care workers with religious objections to refuse services that include abortions.

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