HHS Secretary Azar Calendars Show Multiple Meetings with Conservative Health-Care Groups

Last week, the Trump administration issued a rule barring groups that provide abortions or abortion referrals from receiving family planning funding through the $286 million Title X program. This policy change comes at a time when the Department of Health and Human Services is staffed by many who list experience with anti–abortion rights groups on their resume.

American Oversight obtained HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s and Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan’s calendars, both of which show a number of meetings with conservative and anti-Affordable Care Act (ACA) groups. Azar’s calendars show a meeting about the “Title X Family Planning Proposed Rule” in April 2018. Attendees include HHS official Matthew Bowman, who, on his resume, described himself as a “full-time pro-life volunteer” and listed his experience working on a case about “protecting speech outside abortion clinics.”

Another Azar calendar entry shows a series of calls on February 20, 2018, to discuss the rollout of a new rule allowing for short-term limited duration insurance plans. The day included calls with then–Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Senator Lamar Alexander, and then–House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as interviews with conservative outlets like Fox Radio, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Azar also had a meeting in March 2018 with “Health Care Thought Leaders,” which included only conservative groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the State Policy Network, the Heritage Foundation, and the Manhattan Institute, as well as the Repeal Coalition, an alliance of groups dedicated to overturning the ACA.

In April, Azar also met with Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), about “silver loading,” the practice of raising premiums on silver-tier plans, which allowed insurers to make up for the 2017 loss of HHS cost-sharing reduction payments. Azar and other officials have hinted that they may bar this practice.

Azar also met with two members of Leavitt Partners, a health-care consulting firm started by Mike Leavitt, who was HHS Secretary under President George W. Bush, to discuss “payment model reforms” in February 2018. Azar had previously worked under Leavitt during the Bush administration.

Hargan served as acting secretary from October 2017 through January 2018, after former Secretary Tom Price resigned over a private jet scandal. During that period, Hargan met with Austin Ruse, the head of the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam), who once said that comprehensive sexuality education “is straight from the pits of hell. It is a program that leads children directly into sin and even death.” Ruse has also worked with Russia and other foreign countries on anti-LGBTQ efforts.

In November 2017, Hargan also met with the law firm that represented the Catholic Benefits Association in its lawsuit against HHS’ contraceptive mandate, and in April, he met with the co-founders of Contend Projects — an anti–abortion rights group that warns that emergency contraception can cause “a new human being” to “die” — to discuss what the group called “significant unscientific definitions” in HHS regulations.

Last week, American Oversight filed a lawsuit to find out if HHS senior officials are communicating with anti–abortion rights groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, the Center for Medical Progress, Americans United for Life, the Family Research Council and many others. We also submitted FOIAs to find out more about HHS’ plans to restrict Title X funding and about whether outside groups are influencing agency policy.

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