HHS secretary announces steps after abortion ruling, warns providers to protect patient privacy

Xavier Becerra pledged to expand access but said there's no "magic bullet." He said his agency will investigate any leaks of patient information.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra condemned the Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v. Wade and vowed his agency would do everything possible to help patients make the best choices possible.

Becerra said in a news conference Tuesday he would work to ensure access to medication abortion and also vowed to inform the public that he said is getting misinformation. President Biden has directed the department to do everything possible to ensure access to patients, Becerra said.

“There is no magic bullet but if there is something we can do, we will find it, and we will do it,” he said.

The health and human services department won’t tolerate leaks of patient information regarding reproductive health choices. He said the agency would investigate any healthcare providers that disclose private patient information.

Patients have a fundamental right to privacy, Becerra said.

“We will make sure we investigate and enforce the law to make sure providers are in compliance," he said.

“We will enforce any violations of those rights,” he added.

When asked, Becerra didn’t specify if the department would engage in any new audits or surveys to determine providers were complying with federal laws. He didn't specify the nature of the enfocement actions.

“We will keep every option on the table … to enforce the law,” he said.

‘Moment of crisis’

Becerra said the ruling created “a moment of crisis in healthcare.”

The court’s decision that there’s no constitutional right to an abortion now poses sober questions for healthcare systems and physicians. The court ruling has given states the authority to allow or deny access to abortion services, and bans have already taken effect in some states. As many as 26 states could bar access to abortion.

The ruling “put at risk the life and health of millions of our fellow Americans," Becerra said.

The secretary called the court’s decision “despicable but not unpredictable.”

While he said he has a task force working on reproductive health issues, Becerra also said his agency was still working to understand what guidance it could give Americans in states that either no longer offer abortion or are on the cusp of passing laws to prohibit abortion.

At times, Becerra said all options were on the table to help patients, but he also said the health department was still determining the agency’s authority to help patients and stay within the law.

Still, Becerra outlined five steps the agency would be taking.

  1. HHS is going to increase access to medication abortion, Becerra said. When asked if the FDA would speed up supplies, Becerra said he would let that agency speak for itself. “We are working with the FDA to make sure they have every opportunity to continue to provide Americans with access to safe and effective treatments," he said.
  2. Second, Becerra said he is directing the HHS Office for Civil Rights “to ensure patient privacy and nondiscrimination” for patients seeking reproductive health care, as well as for providers who offer reproductive health care.
  3. The secretary said he’s directing the department to review its authority under the Emergency Medical Treatment Act, a federal law requiring providers to treat and stabilize patients who arrive in emergency departments. Becerra said he wants to ensure the judgment of doctors and hospitals is supported and that abortion care “can be appropriate to stabilize patients.”
  4. Becerra said he’s directing all HHS agencies to ensure that providers, including doctors and pharmacists, have the training and resources to handle family planning needs.
  5. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services is being directed to take “every legally available step to protect family planning care,” including emergency contraceptives and other contraceptives, such as IUDs.

Staying within the law

Since some states have already enacted abortion bans, Becerra was asked if it’s the health department’s position that any doctor in the country can prescribe medication abortion. He said the department is still working on its guidance to healthcare providers.

“We’re going to stay within the confines of the law, even though it’s a law I believe jeopardizes the health of women,” Becerra said.

Becerra said the department will act if states are blocking a particular type of care for patients in an emergency department.

“We will take action. We will do everything we can,” he said. However, he did not specify what those actions would entail.

Becerra also said he would ensure federally-supported programs and services comply with the law. “Federal law requires our programs to provide medication abortion in limited circumstances, including life of the mother, rape, or incest,” he said.

During the news conference, Becerra repeatedly denounced the Supreme Court ruling.

“The Supreme Court decision will result in worsened outcomes and death for some patients,” he said.

When the court announced the ruling Friday, Becerra said he was at a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis. He said he saw the impact play out in real time, as the clinic almost immediately stopped providing care.

“People in the room were visibly shaken,” he said. “There were tears.”

Later in the day, Becerra said he traveled across the state line into Illinois and visited a clinic that was able to continue providing abortions.

“A short drive can make such a dire and draconian difference in healthcare outcomes,” he said.