‘Provider-conscience’ rule reconsidered

The Department of Health and Human Services began the process last week to overturn former President George Bush’s last-minute regulation that expanded employment protections for healthcare workers who refuse care because of their moral or religious positions.

HHS opened a 30-day public-comment period on the regulation March 10, which will close April 9.

Bush signed the rule Dec. 19 along with numerous other “midnight regulations” before his term ended. The provider-conscience regulation went into effect Jan. 20, the day President Barack Obama took office.

There are already several laws that ban hospitals and clinics that receive HHS funding from discriminating against workers who refuse service based on their personal views, but the Bush regulation further stipulated that any healthcare institutions that receive any federal funding cannot discriminate against workers who refuse care based on moral objections.

Critics of the rule argue it is written so broadly that it could infringe upon a woman’s right to an abortion or birth control and could impede the level of care that is administered to LGBT individuals, other minorities and people with HIV/AIDS.

“These ill-conceived regulations sacrifice patients’ right to medical care,” said Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese. ”A patient’s access to healthcare services should not depend on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Jessica Arons, director of the Center for American Progress’ women’s health and rights program, posited that the wide-reaching nature of the regulation could lead to vast failures in healthcare.

“It goes well beyond doctors and nurses to include almost anyone who works in the healthcare sector,” Arons said. “It allows people to withhold relevant medical information and not inform patients about all their options.”

The recent HHS proposal states the department is looking to “rescind in its entirety” Bush’s rule.

“It is important that the department have the opportunity to review this regulation to ensure its consistency with current administration policy,” the proposal states. “Accordingly, we believe it would benefit the department to review this rule, accept further comments and reevaluate the necessity for regulations implementing the statutory requirement.”

The Bush administration proposed the regulation in August 2008 and opened the issue for a 30-day public-comment period, during which 200,000 people registered comments against the expansion of the provider-conscience rules.

The American Medical Association, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and Planned Parenthood have all expressed opposition to the regulation.

Maggie Groff, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, said the regulation “creates chaos in an already-stressed healthcare system.”

“Patients deserve access to complete and accurate healthcare information and services,” Groff said. “This rule would undermine that by allowing health-insurance companies, hospitals, doctors and healthcare professionals of any kind to deny patients vital healthcare information without the patient even knowing it necessarily.”

After the comment period ends next month, Obama could either completely revoke the rule or replace it with one that clarifies existing laws that protect healthcare providers.

In the 1970s, Congress approved the Church Amendments, which in part prohibited healthcare institutions that receive HHS funding from discriminating against workers who refuse service based on their moral views. In 1996, Congress passed Section 245 of the Public Health Service Act to ban federal, state and local governments that receive federal funding from discriminating against such healthcare providers. The 2005 Weldon Amendment prohibited HHS funding from being dispersed to agencies or organizations that discriminate against workers who evoke provider-conscience rules.

To comment, visit www.regulations.gov and enter 0991-AB49 in the search box or send an e-mail to [email protected]. Comments can also be accepted by mail, with one original and two copies sent to Office of Public Health and Science, Department of Health and Human Services, Attention: Recission Proposal Comments, Hubert H. Humphrey Building, 200 Independence Ave., SW, Room 716G, Washington, DC 20201.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].