Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), spoke to reporters Tuesday about the Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision on Friday to overturn a long-standing constitutional right and how the department intends to respond.
Becerra called the decision to strip away the fundamental health care protections for Americans as “despicable, but also predictable.” Earlier this year, he said, the department launched its HHS Reproductive Access Task Force to plan actions to protect women’s access to reproductive health care. Although there is no magic bullet, he said that HHS will do whatever it can do, per the instruction of President Joe Biden.
“This is a critical moment in history,” he said. “How we respond will speak to how we view the rights, dignity, and wellbeing of women everywhere. This is a moment of crisis in health care. We will leave no stone unturned. All options are on the table. We will do everything within the legal limit of the law to reach patients and support providers.”
To ensure that women who live in states that have banned abortion can travel safely to states that have legalized the procedure, Becerra said that HHS will take the following steps:
Increase access to medication abortion
Federal law, he said, requires programs to provide Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medication abortion in limited circumstances, including life of the mother, rape, or incest. “Now more than ever it is imperative that all federally-supported programs and services are complying and providing this under the law,” Becerra said in prepared remarks.
Medication abortion, he said later, is the “gold standard for care” when someone who’s pregnant experiences a miscarriage. Becerra said he will work with Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and the Justice Department to ensure that states may not ban medication abortion, based on a disagreement with the FDA’s expert judgment about the drug’s safety and efficacy.
Ensure patient privacy and nondiscrimination for patients seeking reproductive health care
Becerra said that he will direct the Office for Civil Rights within HHS to ensure patient privacy and nondiscrimination for patients who seek reproductive health care, as well as for providers who offer reproductive health care.
Examine authority under EMTALA to ensure providers’ clinical judgement supports treatment
Becerra wants to explore HHS authority under the Emergency Medical Treatment Act to ensure that clinical judgment of doctors and hospitals is supported in treating pregnant patients, including those experiencing pregnancy loss or complications, and reaffirming that abortion care can be appropriate to stabilize patients.
Ensure providers have appropriate training to handle family planning needs
HHS will work to ensure that all providers–including doctors, pharmacists, and clinics–have appropriate training and resources to handle family planning needs, including administering patient referrals for care, and helping patients navigate this new reality.
Protect family planning care, including emergency contraceptives and long acting reversable contraceptives
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will take every legally available step to protect family planning care, including emergency contraceptives and long acting reversable contraceptives, such as IUDs, he said. “Health care is a matter to be decided by patients and their providers, not politicians. As part of these efforts, we will make clear that family planning providers are able to participate in the Medicaid program. These clinics provide safe care and have a vast expertise in providing reproductive health care.”
Meanwhile, the Labor and Treasury Departments joined Becerra in a letter to group health plans and health insurance issuers reminding them of their obligations under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to provide coverage for contraceptive services at no cost. In all 50 states, the ACA guarantees coverage of women’s preventive services, including free birth control and contraceptive counseling, for individuals and covered dependents.