Democrats are accusing the Trump administration of coordinating with an "extremist" and "far-right" legal group in creating new guidance for states on defunding Planned Parenthood.
The guidance, released by the Department of Health and Human Services in January, said states don't have to comply with an Obama administration policy from April 2016 that warned restricting Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood could violate federal law. The repeal would give states more flexibility on how they manage the program, agency officials said.
But House Oversight Committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings obtained documents from a whistleblower suggesting that HHS received a draft legal analysis from the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom a week before the announcement.
"The documents provided by the whistleblower raise serious concerns about whether the Trump administration is now taking orders from an extreme right-wing interest group that is trying to deny American citizens the ability to exercise their right to obtain family planning services from the provider of their choice, which is guaranteed by federal statute," the Maryland Democrat wrote in a letter to HHS sent Monday.
Sen. Patty Murray, a top-ranking Democrat from Washington, said it was "concerning that President Trump continues to listen to extremists."
“This is another clear and alarming sign that President Trump is more concerned with following a far-right ideological agenda than with protecting women’s healthcare needs," she said. "We should be focused on making it easier for women to get the care they need, not harder. We should be basing our policies on evidence and expertise, not extreme and dangerous ideologies. This isn’t hard — listen to women, listen to experts, listen to evidence."
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which defends religious liberty cases, has said the allegations are misleading and that it is not uncommon for officials to seek legal guidance.
HHS declined to provide additional information about the issue.
“We’ve received the letter and will respond," an HHS official told the Washington Examiner.
By law, federal funds do not go toward most abortions, but 17 states provide their own Medicaid funds to pay for medically necessary abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights and tracks related laws.
The Obama administration sent the 2016 letter after 10 states moved to end Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood in response to secretly taped videos that purported to show members of the organization discussing the trafficking of fetal tissue, a practice that is illegal. Thirteen states that investigated Planned Parenthood cleared the organization of wrongdoing. Planned Parenthood has said the videos were heavily edited and misleading, but the Department of Justice under the Trump administration is reviewing documents lawmakers collected on the issue.
The alliance defended the man behind the videos, David Daleiden, who runs the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. In May it will defend anti-abortion pregnancy centers in California, in a case before the Supreme Court, against a state law that mandates they post information about where women can obtain an abortion.
Planned Parenthood called the HHS coordination with the alliance "shocking and outrageous" and has maintained that existing law does not allow states to exclude the organization from Medicaid for political reasons.