Theocrats At HHS

Readers from Indiana will understand why I found this recent Politico headline chilling: “How Mike Pence’s Mafia Took Over Health Care Policy.”

Pence, of course, could care less about health care, or policy of any sort that doesn’t advance his Christianist agenda. And he “serves” (or is that word “serviles”?) a President who has no discernible interest in any policy–or anything other than his own self-aggrandizement. So the fact that Pence has installed his preferred people at Health and Human Services tells us that health policy will be made on the basis of ideology, not science or evidence.

Behind the scenes, Pence has developed his own sphere of influence in an agency lower on Trump’s radar: Health and Human Services. It’s also the agency with the ability to fulfill the policy goal most closely associated with Pence over his nearly 20 year career in electoral politics: de-funding Planned Parenthood.

Numerous top leaders of the department — including Secretary Alex Azar, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Medicaid/Medicare chief Seema Verma — have ties to Pence and Indiana. Other senior officials include Pence’s former legislative director from his days as governor and former domestic policy adviser at the White House.

“He has clearly recruited people connected to him who share his very extreme views on sexual and reproductive health care,” said Emily Stewart, the vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood. “This has been one of the most active administrations ever on rolling back reproductive rights and there’s no way that happens unless you have people in the White House driving the effort to put out policies at such a rapid clip.”

Before the courts intervened, HHS was getting ready to implement rewritten federal policies to curb abortion and–Pence’s wet dream– cut funding to Planned Parenthood. The new regulations would also have tightened the conditions under which Title X federal family planning grants are awarded, ensuring that clinics wouldn’t even be able to refer women to entirely separate abortion providers.

And in a nod to Pence’s longterm efforts to privilege religious bigotry, the agency this month boosted “religious conscience protections” for providers who refuse to perform certain medical services, including abortion, citing religious or moral objections.

The changes to Title X are the culmination of a battle Pence waged first as a member of Congress, then as governor and now in the White House. The Title X rules, which force providers of federally funded family-planning programs to separate themselves from abortion providers, are aimed squarely at Planned Parenthood, which relies heavily on such funding. The Title X changes don’t cut off Medicaid funds from Planned Parenthood — although cutting off that big pot of money is on the GOP wish list as well.

Pence has installed a number of people at HHS who were part of his Indiana administration. As White House staff members have confirmed, from the very outset of the Trump administration, Pence had carte blanche to identify nominees he preferred  “particularly in roles Trump didn’t really care about,” as one GOP operative put it.

Even somewhat smaller projects appear to bear the vice president’s ideological imprint — for example, a recent HHS decision to grant South Carolina a waiver that allows foster care providers to reject potential families who have different religious beliefs.

These conservative and religious views have played into the administration’s foreign as well as domestic policy. Internationally, Trump and Pence have gone beyond even other Republican administrations in curbing access to abortion and contraception by expanding the so-called Mexico City policy barring U.S. foreign aid to groups that promote or provide abortion.

Trump is fixated on himself. Pence is fixated on imposing his peculiar version of Christianity  on America.

Neither they nor any of the criminals and incompetents they’ve installed as cabinet members and White House staffers care anything at all about We the People, the Constitution, or the Rule of Law.

If we don’t evict the whole crew in 2020, there may not be any going back.