Mike Pence and his ‘Indiana mafia’ are reorganizing important safety net programs to push their religious agenda
Vice President Mike Pence, seen here speaking to reporters at the White House. (AFP / SAUL LOEB)

Vice President Mike Pence and some of his longtime allies have been reorganizing the Department of Health and Human Services to promote their deeply conservative religious agenda -- much to the delight of anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups.

Pence and his "Indiana mafia," according to one HHS official, have been working behind the scenes to defund Planned Parenthood, which he was unable to accomplish in Congress or as governor, reported Politico.

“There is a clear pattern dating back many years,” said Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen. “He has worked relentlessly to cut off access to women’s health care.”

Pence was involved from the outset of the Trump administration in identifying like-minded nominees, “particularly in roles Trump didn’t really care about,” according to one Republican operative.

HHS secretary Alex Azar, surgeon general Jerome Adams and Medicaid/Medicare head Seema Verma each have ties to Pence and Indiana, and other senior officials at the department include Pence's former legislative director as governor and his former domestic policy adviser at the White House.

“He has clearly recruited people connected to him who share his very extreme views on sexual and reproductive health care," said Emily Stewart, vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood. "This has been one of the most active administrations ever on rolling back reproductive rights and there's no way that happens unless you have people in the White House driving the effort to put out policies at such a rapid clip.”

HHS was prepared, until courts stepped in, to tighten rules for the Title X federal family planning grants to prohibit clinics from referring women to abortion providers, and the agency has strengthened religious conscience protections for providers who refuse to perform abortions and other medical services.

“Pro-lifers have more of a seat at the table now,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of the anti-abortion Students for Life of America. “We have more active pro-lifers now in the West Wing and throughout the administration, and that’s a definitive shift from past administrations.”

Pence tried to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood as a U.S. congressman in 2007, but his House bill eventually stalled in the Senate.

He pushed his state in 2012, after he was elected Indiana governor, to cut off Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood and restrict access to abortion, although courts blocked some of those measures.

Pence also signed funding cuts to Planned Parenthood clinics and the closure of at least one, which have been blamed in part for the state's HIV outbreak from 2011 to 2015.