The Guadalupanas, whose province is headquartered in Los Angeles, are consecrated Catholic women who live among the poor and needy in inner city and rural areas. Their service includes teaching religion classes and working with destitute Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Their June 2017 complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights alleged that California’s 2014 rules mandating abortion coverage in health plans burdened their conscience rights and compelled them to fund “the practice of abortion on demand for other plan participants,” despite their Catholic beliefs that direct abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law.”
On Jan. 24, federal officials sided with the Guadalupanas and another complainant, the Skyline Wesleyan Church of La Mesa.
In a document known as a notice of violation, the Office of Civil Rights said that California’s Department of Managed Health Care ignored its specific request to confirm or deny whether it would align its practices to the federal Weldon Amendment, and instead issued a response that “confirms its non-compliance.”
The office gave California 30 days to agree to comply with the law or face limits on federal HHS funds.
The Weldon Amendment, first passed in 2005, bars HHS-appropriated federal funds to state or local governments if they discriminate against institutional or individual healthcare entities, including health insurance plans, that decline to pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for, abortions.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, in a letter to Severino dated Feb. 21, said has said the state will take “no corrective action” in response to the federal notice.
In a Feb. 21 press release, Becerra said “California has the sovereign right to protect women’s reproductive rights.”
“Political grandstanding should never interfere with that,” he added.
Becerra’s letter objected that the notice contradicts a 2016 determination that California was in compliance with the Weldon Amendment, despite complaints from groups like the California Catholic Conference. The attorney general argued that the latest notice “dramatically reinterprets” the amendment and threatens to cut federal funding for vital state programs.
Becerra’s letter to Severino did not mention either the Missionary Guadalupanas or Skyline Wesleyan Church whose legal complaints prompted the HHS action.
For his part, Severino said the Department of Health and Human Services will take appropriate action in response.
(Story continues below)
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“For decades Californians could choose whether or not they wanted abortion-free health insurance coverage until California took away that option,” Severino told CNA Feb. 24.
“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.”
Becerra’s letter echoed the arguments behind the state’s 2014 rule change. California Supreme Court precedent, and California constitutional provisions require protections for “women’s right to privacy and reproductive freedom.” California legislation requires health plans to offer abortion services as part of “basic health care services.”
Only one provider had requested an exemption, he said, and this exemption was granted. This was proof the state was willing to comply with the Weldon Amendment.
Federal action he said, threatens programs like emergency preparedness, infectious disease programs and child welfare programs.
The attorney general requested all evidence related to the Notice of Violation so that California could have a “full and fair opportunity” to refute it. His letter objected that “corrective action” was not specified.
California officials mandated the coverage after two Catholic universities in autumn 2013 announced that they planned to stop paying for employees’ elective abortions and had secured state approval for the new health plans.