HHS chief meets with House Republicans on abortion dispute

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Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sylvia Mathews Burwell met with Republican lawmakers on Wednesday to discuss their strong objections to a ruling on an abortion law made by her department, according to Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who was in attendance. 

Republican lawmakers decried a ruling from HHS this week that said the state of California was not violating federal law by requiring all health insurance plans to cover abortions.

{mosads}Smith, who strongly opposes abortion rights and is chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus, said that he did not have his questions satisfactorily answered in the more than hour-long meeting, which took place in the office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). 

The controversy began in 2014, when a group of churches and other religious groups, backed by congressional Republicans, complained that California was violating the federal Weldon Amendment, which protects a “healthcare entity,” including a health insurance plan, from discrimination if it declines to cover abortions. 

In a letter on Tuesday making its ruling, HHS said none of the healthcare entities themselves are objecting or saying they are being discriminated against. The health insurance companies themselves have no moral objections to covering abortions, HHS said. 

The churches and other groups that are objecting, HHS said, are not healthcare entities and therefore are not protected by the law. 

The Republicans object to that ruling, saying it should simply be enough that a health insurance plan is a healthcare entity protected by the law. 

Republican lawmakers have also questioned why it took HHS more than a year to reach its ruling. Burwell acknowledged at a congressional hearing in February she was “not satisfied with our speed.”

Smith told The Hill that he asked in the meeting why it took “almost two years” to come up with the ruling that the churches are not covered by the Weldon Amendment. 

“When did you decide that? Last week?” Smith said. “I asked that question yesterday. Where in the timeline was that determined?”

He said he asked the question five times but Burwell and Jocelyn Samuels, head of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, would not answer. 

“We took these complaints very seriously and wanted to ensure that we conducted a full and thorough investigation and carefully considered the application of the Weldon Amendment to the facts we discovered,” HHS spokesman Kevin Griffis wrote in an email when asked about the investigation’s timeframe. 

Smith said the other GOP lawmakers at the meeting included McCarthy, as well as Reps. Diane Black (Tenn.), John Fleming (La.), Andy Harris (Md.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), Steve Knight (Calif.), Doug LaMalfa (Calif.) and Joe Pitts (Pa.).

Smith also objected to the scheduling of the meeting. He said that the lawmakers, led by McCarthy, had previously requested a meeting with HHS before the ruling came down. That meeting was originally set for June 14, he said, but HHS then canceled it, unexpectedly issued its decision, and then held the meeting on Wednesday after the decision had been made. 

“Leader McCarthy had called for it, and unexpectedly, because we were all ready to go, Secretary Burwell cancelled it, and then two weeks later comes, ‘Oh, they don’t have standing,’ ” Smith said. 

HHS declined to comment on the timing of the meeting. 

House Republicans have been looking at legislation that aims to strengthen the Weldon Amendment and make it easier for people to sue if they think it has been violated. Democrats oppose the measures. 

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