Capitol Alert

California sues Trump administration to safeguard birth control coverage

President Donald Trump speaks during a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks during a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Washington. AP

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit Friday against the Trump administration, challenging a new federal policy allowing employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control.

In a complaint filed Friday afternoon in federal district court in San Francisco, Becerra argued that the directive issued by President Donald Trump, through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is unconstitutional. He said it:

▪ Violates the First Amendment by allowing employers to use religious beliefs as a right to discriminate against employees to deny them a “federally entitled benefit” under Obamacare.

▪ Violates the Fifth Amendment by specifically targeting women and denying their rights to equal protection under the law.

▪ Will have “immediate and irreparable harm on the state of California,” potentially leave “millions of women ... without access to contraceptives and counseling.” He also said the state would have to “shoulder the additional fiscal and administrative burden” as women seek birth control through state-funded programs.

▪ Violates rules requiring that the federal government disclose to Americans its process for changing policy.

“Donald Trump wants businesses and corporations to control family planning decisions rather than a woman in consultation with her doctor,” Becerra said in a statement. “We’ll see the Trump administration in court.”

The Trump administration’s new rule, issued Friday morning, immediately reverses federal rules that require most companies to cover birth control as preventive care for women, at no additional cost. Under the new rules, employers are allowed to cite religious or moral objections to exempt themselves from providing contraceptive coverage.

The move broadens Obama-era policy that allowed only houses of worship and religious nonprofits and some private companies to deny coverage.

The Trump administration argued, through a memo issued Friday by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that employers have a right, based on religious freedom, to not offer contraceptive coverage to employees.

“As President Trump said, ‘Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation ... (this administration) will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,’ ” Sessions wrote.

In the new guidance, Sessions said it was the interpretation of the federal government that employers have a constitutional right to choose whether to provide birth control coverage.

“Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people. It has protected both the freedom to worship and the freedom not to believe. Every American has a right to believe, worship and exercise their faith. The protections for this right, enshrined in our Constitution and laws, serve to declare and protect this important part of our heritage ... President Trump promised that this administration would ‘lead by example on religious liberty,’ and he is delivering on that promise.”

Most Californians, including those who purchase insurance through Covered California and on Medi-Cal, would not be affected because under state law, health plans regulated by the state are required to cover contraceptive coverage. Employees who work for privately insured companies could, however, potentially lose birth control coverage because their plans are regulated by the federal government. Health Access California, a health advocacy nonprofit, and Planned Parenthood estimate that 6 million to 7 million Californians are covered under those plans.

“We’re not saying 6 million people will lose their care,” said Anthony Wright, the organization’s executive director. “But employers would be able to dictate their access to contraception.”

Crystal Strait, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, said taxpayers could be on the hook for losses in coverage.

“On one hand, because of the forethought of the Legislature, we’re in a better position than many states,” Strait said. “However there’s still millions of women who are part of self-insured plans ... this is letting employers get out of something and sticking it to taxpayers.”

Other organizations are also planning lawsuits, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the National Women’s Law Center, their representatives said. It is unclear how many lawsuits will be brought forth against the federal government or when they will be filed.

“We’re prepared to go to court ... soon,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “With these actions, the Trump administration is really saying to employers, ‘If you want to discriminate, the administration has your back.’ 

“We’re getting our papers ready,” said Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, about filing a lawsuit. “We are hoping to do so as soon as possible. Hopefully that means today.”

Becerra and others blasted Trump’s move as an unconstitutional assault on women’s reproductive rights.

“The Trump administration just took direct aim at birth control coverage for 62 million women,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement. “This is an unacceptable attack on basic health care that the vast majority of women rely on. With this rule in place, any employer could decide that their employees no longer have health insurance coverage for birth control.

“We’re talking about a fundamental right – to be able to decide whether and when you want to have children,” Richards said.

An estimated 20,000 people attended the Women's March on Sacramento, starting at Southside Park and ending at the California State Capitol. A diverse crowd gathered to promote women's rights and human rights on the first full day of Donald Trump'

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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