California rejects Trump effort to cut off federal funds over abortion

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – California on Friday fought back against a Trump administration threat to withhold federal funds for some health programs unless it stopped requiring health insurers to cover abortions, saying it would undermine the state’s authority to protect women’s reproductive rights.

Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, both Democrats, accused the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of threatening billions of dollars of funding, not just for abortions, by reversing the Obama administration’s view of a federal law governing insurance coverage.

In a letter to Roger Severino, director of HHS’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”), Becerra said California already complied with the law, citing OCR’s 2016 ruling in the state’s favor in similar cases, and that a provision in the state constitution protected the right to have an abortion as a privacy right.

California’s stance risks a possible showdown with HHS, which could try to expand any funding pullback to five other U.S. states that also require insurers to cover abortions.

“For decades Californians could choose whether or not they wanted abortion-free health insurance coverage until California took away that option,” Severino said in a statement. “HHS is assessing the recent letter from the California Attorney General and all appropriate remedies in light of California’s continued refusal to comply with federal law.”

The agency had on Jan. 24 said California’s requiring insurers to cover abortions violated the Weldon Amendment, a federal law allowing funds to be withheld from state or local governments that discriminate against any “health care entity” that refuses to provide, pay for or cover abortions.

HHS gave California 30 days to provide “sufficient assurance” it would lift the coverage requirement, or risk a loss of funding.

Newsom said in a statement on Friday: “This is extreme presidential overreach and would, if carried out, jeopardize lives of Californians. We will not allow it.”

Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington also require health insurers to cover abortions, while Maine has a similar requirement for insurers that cover prenatal care.

HHS announced the funding threat on the same day U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, became the first president to attend the annual “March for Life” anti-abortion demonstration in Washington.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Tom Brown)