Branstad confident DHS chief will ‘do the right thing' with petition to stop Medicaid-funded abortions

Decision could risk federal Medicaid funding to state

Chuck Palmer, administrator of the Iowa Department of Human Services.
Chuck Palmer, administrator of the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Gov. Terry Branstad has confidence his director of Human Services will “do the right thing” in deciding how to handle a request from 41 GOP House members for emergency rulemaking to halt government-funded abortions.

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to him in detail,” Branstad said Monday, referring to Iowa DHS director Chuck Palmer, “but I have a lot of confidence in him. He’s a problem-solver. He has empathy for the people who receive human services and he has good fiscal management skills.”

The GOP House members petitioned the Iowa Department of Human Services to rescind rules on terminating pregnancies in cases of rape, incest and fetal deformation.

In fiscal 2012, which ended June 30, there were 22 Medicaid-funded abortions in Iowa -- 15 for severe fetal anomalies, two for rape and five to save the life of the mother, according to the DHS.

There’s more at risk than the funding for those abortions, however. Palmer said there is legal precedent in federal decisions regarding similar situations in other states that have sought to end government-funded abortions, suggesting Iowa could risk $1.8 billion in Medicaid money by pursuing that course of action.

Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, said the state stands to lose just $4 million in Medicaid funds.

Pettengill and 40 other House GOP members contend rules allowing for taxpayer-funded abortions in cases of rape, incest and fetal anomalies should be rescinded. The state has until Aug. 10 to respond to the request for emergency rulemaking.

Palmer, who has indicated he will make a decision on the petition prior to the Aug. 8 meeting of the Human Services Council, said he is weighing the fiscal impact.

“We’re making assumptions about an all or nothing position on the federal part,” he said. “We don’t know that.

“I would say where we are right now is we’re really in a period of uncertainty, including the impact of the election,” Palmer said.

The Iowa House voted to change the current state policy governing government-funded abortions, while the Senate – where Democrats hold a 26-24 edge – maintained current law that provides for a limited number of exceptions covering cases of rape, incest and fetal deformation.

Palmer has to weigh the dual responsibilities imposed on him by the Legislature and the federal government, Branstad said.

“(Palmer) has to sort that out … so he’s sort of caught in the middle,” the governor said.

One of the things to sort out, Branstad said, is whether the loss of federal funds is realistic.

“There are other states, like South Dakota, that have taken action. I don’t know if it’s the same kind of action, but (they) haven’t lost their federal funds,” he said.

South Dakota has a total ban on using Medicaid money for abortions. It has not lost funding, but then no one has challenged the taxpayer-funded abortion ban.

Palmer and others find it ironic the GOP wants to use the rulemaking process to do what the Legislature didn’t. They have objected to state agencies extending the intent of state law in cases including banning lead shot for dove-hunting and requiring electrical inspections for farm buildings. Now those lawmakers want the DHS to use the rulemaking process to overturn rules that have been in place since the 1970s.

Their sense of irony was lost on Branstad.“Well, I guess that’s what happens in politics,” he said.

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