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House GOP fuming over California abortion decision

Congressional Republicans are mulling their reaction to a controversial decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last week that appeared to allow taxpayer-funded abortions in California, in violation of a longtime congressional mandate.

HHS officials last Wednesday ruled that the California Department of Managed Health Care could require abortion coverage to be included in statewide insurance plans, as the state agency declared in 2014. Before that 2014 mandate, health insurance companies were allowed to exempt customers with religious objections to abortion.

The HHS decision was issued in a statement by the inter-agency Office of Civil Rights.

But Republicans on Capitol Hill quickly insisted that the HHS decision violates the so-called "Weldon Amendment,” an annually issued rule by Congress that bars federal funds from being used for abortion procedures.

“A physician or other health care professional, a hospital, a provider-sponsored organization, a health maintenance organization, a health insurance plan, or any other kind of health care facility” may refuse abortions, counseling or referrals, even in cases of rape, incest or medical emergency, states the rule.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy issued a strongly worded statement about the HHS decision, calling it “unbelievable” and said he and eight other congressmen immediately met with HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell to express “outrage and bewilderment.”

HHS officials did not return repeated calls for comment, but a spokesman for McCarthy — who represents a central California district — acknowledged to AMI Newswire that the meeting with Burwell was contentious.

The spokesman said “next steps are still to be determined,” but the statement from McCarthy specifically mentioned the possibility of legislation once the House returns from recess next month.

“The California abortion mandate on its face violates the plain text of the Weldon Amendment, which protects health care entities that do not participate in abortion against government-imposed discrimination,” McCarthy said.

“The text of Weldon — which has been renewed and signed into law annually for over 10 years — makes it clear that a 'health care entity' includes health insurance plans. The Department of Health and Human Services’ conclusion that California’s action does not violate the Weldon Amendment ignores the simple truth that requiring a health plan to cease to exist because it does not include abortion is discriminatory.”

McCarthy said the HHS decision “forces the House to explore all legislative options to protect the rights of health care providers in California and across our country who do not wish to participate in a practice that takes the lives of unborn children.”

A group of religious institutions had legally challenged the 2014 mandate in California, arguing that it infringes upon religious freedom. The decision by HHS specified, however, that only religious objections of health care providers can legitimately be considered — not the objections of their customers — and determined that no providers in the state had any such objections.