- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2018

The Trump administration has rescinded an Obama-era crackdown on states that tried to defund Planned Parenthood and said Friday it will require health care providers to follow conscience-protection laws as a condition of federal funding.

The Obama administration had warned states in 2016 not to carve Planned Parenthood or similar clinics out of their state Medicaid programs simply for providing women’s health care, “including abortion services,” arguing it might flout federal law. It said organizations should only be cut off if they were unfit to perform services or bill for them.

Charmaine Yoest, assistant Health and Human Services secretary for public affairs, said Mr. Trump is rescinding that guidance as part of his effort to roll back rules that “radically favor abortion.”

“Reinstating the pre-2016 standards frees up states to once again decide for themselves what reasonable standards they use to protect Medicaid programs and their beneficiaries,” Ms. Yoest said.

Also, HHS followed through on its launch of a religious-freedom division by requiring health care providers who obtain federal grants to certify they’re following laws that allow doctors and nurses to exempt themselves from abortion and other controversial procedures without fear of retaliation.

The moves are designed to bolster Mr. Trump’s standing with the pro-life community.

HHS announced both moves as activists flooded Washington to decry abortion in the March for Life, an annual protest held around the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to uphold a women’s right to abortion in Roe v. Wade.

“President Trump and his administration have taken a monumental stand for conscience rights and an important step toward getting American taxpayers out of funding the abortion industry, especially Planned Parenthood,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List.

Progressive groups, meanwhile, said renewed attacks on Planned Parenthood and other policy moves justified the “worst fears” of legions of women who launched their own march on Washington, one day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

“Over the past 12 months, the Trump administration and its Republican allies in Congress have launched attack after attack on women’s access to health care in parallel with Republicans’ war on American health care,” said Marjorie Connelly, spokeswoman for Protect Our Care, a coalition that defends Obamacare.

Republicans failed to repeal and replace the 2010 health law and defund Planned Parenthood using fast-track budget rules that carved Democrats out the process.

Since then, the White House has issued regulations that crack open the door to cheaper, skimpier health plans that don’t comport with Obamacare’s coverage requirement, which include things like maternity care. It also curbed an outgrowth of the 2010 health law that required most employers to insure birth control as part of their health plans, although defenders of the “contraception mandate” are fighting him in court.

The latest move is designed to tamp down on grumbling amid pro-life groups who’d expected the GOP to use their control of Congress and the White House to defund Planned Parenthood.

The Trump administration said states will still be able to set “reasonable” parameters for providers participating in Medicaid and stay within the law.

Yet Democrats and their allies said states that have tried to restrict Medicaid beneficiaries access to abortion clinics — including Texas and several other states across the South and Midwest — will run afoul of the program’s guardrails, as the Obama administration warned.

“Our take is that the Trump administration is clearly issuing an invitation for states to exclude Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers from their Medicaid programs. But the underlying law still stands, and we will have to see what the courts have to say,” said Kinsey Hasstedt, a senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that advances sexual and reproductive health rights.

Planned Parenthood itself said the new guidance takes an end-run around elected lawmakers and would deny critical services to women who use their clinics because they cannot get health care elsewhere.

“They couldn’t get the votes to pass it in Congress, so now they are pushing states to try and block care at Planned Parenthood,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Pro-life groups said Congress still has a role in the fight, though they want Republicans to go beyond Mr. Trump’s actions and block any public funding to Planned Parenthood, saying taxpayers shouldn’t be keep the clinics afloat — even if federal dollars are prohibited from flowing directly to abortion under longstanding Hyde Amendment restrictions.

The back-and-forth served as an undercard to Capitol Hill’s more prominent fight over a bill to avoid a government shutdown.

As the funding debate took hold, HHS launched a religious-freedom division Thursday to respond to complaints from doctors and health care workers who say they’re being coerced into procedures that violate their conscience or religious beliefs.

Democrats questioned the move, fearing health workers would deny routine health care to patients who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

HHS officials on Friday said they’re focused on narrow set or procedures — namely abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide — that health care workers can opt out of on religious or moral grounds, according to a patchwork of long-standing laws.

“Diversity is good, and everybody should be treated with respect in health care,” said Roger Severino, who leads HHS’s Office for Civil Rights.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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