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Republicans threaten ‘sanctions’ against VA after department decides to offer abortions

Republicans in Congress are working on “sanctions” against the Department of Veterans Affairs following the agency’s decision to offer abortions in limited circumstances, the senior member of the Veterans Affairs Committee said Thursday. Bedroom.

“I am working with my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee and the Senate to consider sanctions against VA for violating the Anti-Disability Act,” Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., said during a committee hearing on the reproductive health care at the VA.

The Antideficiency Act, or ADA, prohibits federal agencies from spending money that has not been approved by Congress. Violations of the law are subject to administrative and criminal penalties, but it is unclear what kind of penalties Congress might impose, or whether abortion access would violate the law as Bost asserted.

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“By ignoring the law, VA is violating the wishes and values ​​of millions of Americans who do not want their tax dollars used to pay for abortions, in VA or elsewhere,” Bost added.

A Bost spokesperson said lawmakers were “still considering what the process for ADA violations would be and how VA would be held accountable.”

Thursday’s hearing on reproductive health care at the VA came after the department, for the first time, said it would offer abortions when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. , or when the life of the mother is endangered by the pregnancy. The department will also offer abortion counseling to any veteran who requests it.

The VA moved forward with its plans on Friday, publishing an interim final rule in the Federal Register that allows it to develop and implement the benefit as soon as possible, prompted by the Supreme Court’s June ruling that overturned the previous one. of 50 years of Roe c. Wade, which guaranteed the right to abortion throughout the country.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has sparked waves of anti-abortion legislation in Republican-led states. At least 14 states have banned or nearly banned abortion since the Supreme Court ruling, while nine others have decided to restrict abortion but have been blocked by courts from enforcing the restrictions due to ongoing legal challenges. .

The VA argues that there is no legal impediment to the department providing abortion services despite the so-called Hyde Amendment which restricts federal abortion funding in most cases and that the only reason why it hasn’t done so before is that abortion care was not included in the ministry’s package of medical benefits released in 1999.

Congressional Democrats also argue that the VA has the authority to cover abortions under the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, which states that the VA Secretary “shall provide the hospital care and such medical services…as the secretary deems necessary”.

But Republicans argue that in addition to the Hyde Amendment, the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 prohibits the VA from covering abortions. This law directed the VA to provide reproductive health care, with the exception of “infertility services, abortions, or pregnancy care,” unless such care is necessary due to a related condition. in the service.

In addition to Bost’s sanctions threats, Republicans also hinted Thursday at the possibility of a lawsuit against the new policy.

“I can’t wait for it to be overturned by the courts, and I plan to do everything I can to support this effort,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont.

An estimated 96,200 VA patients live in states that have banned or severely restricted abortion, according to written testimony to the committee by Rand Corp researcher Kayla Williams.

Each year, the VA has had to send an average of 10 to 20 veterans to outside doctors for “life-saving” abortion care, VA undersecretary of health Shereef Elnahal said Thursday. The VA estimates it could provide about 1,000 abortions a year under the new policy, the majority of which would be medical abortions, added Amanda Johnson, director of the Department of Women’s Reproductive Health.

“We couldn’t deal with the security environment after the Dobbs decision,” Elnahal said.

Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee also sought input from veterans on abortion and reproductive health care at the VA, including launching an online survey.

As of this week, the survey has received more than 450 responses, committee chair Mark Takano, D-California, said during the hearing. Of the responses, about 90% said the VA should provide abortion counseling, and 73% said it should “always” or “sometimes” provide abortion care, Takano added.

“Women veterans have worn our country’s uniform with pride, and that is why it is an insult to their service that they are denied the most personal choices about their bodies and their lives,” said Takano. “Fortunately, President Biden and [VA Secretary Denis] McDonough is taking bold steps to avert imminent and future harm to veterans by restoring certain reproductive health care freedoms that were removed following the recent Supreme Court ruling. »

— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: VA pushes ahead with abortion care as lawsuits and Republican opposition loom

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