Critics speak out on proposed rule that would allow moral and religious refusals in healthcare

Opponents say a proposed rule will hurt access to healthcare for LGBT patients and women. (Sarah Stierch/CC BY 4.0)

Taking up their pens, a number of critics of a proposed rule that could allow healthcare workers to refuse care based on moral and religious grounds have written opinion pieces and urged others to speak out before a public comment period ends Tuesday.

One of those authors is the woman who once headed up the office that is home to a controversial new “conscience and religious freedom” division. Jocelyn Samuels, who served as director of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, urged people to oppose the proposed rule, which critics say will allow healthcare workers to discriminate against women and LGBTQ patients.

“Let’s tell OCR that it can’t jeopardize the health and well-being of the LGBT community, not to mention critical reproductive healthcare for women, in this way. The health of vulnerable communities—as well as the health of our civil rights laws—demands no less,” Samuels writes in The Advocate.

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HHS proposed a rule in January that it says will further protect healthcare workers’ “conscience rights,” an action that followed on the heels of the creation of a “conscience and religious freedom” division within HHS’s OCR. The agency said it took those steps to protect healthcare workers who have moral or religious objections to providing medical services, such as abortion, treating transgender patients or medical aid-in-dying.

With the comment period set to close on March 27, HHS has failed to post even one of the more than 30,000 citizen comments it has received on the proposed rule, wrote Paige Schilt, Ph.D., in an opinion piece published by The Hill.

“The proposed conscience rights rule is only the latest in a series of actions that the Trump administration has taken to undermine transgender healthcare,” writes Schilt.

Others worry the proposed rule will hurt the movement to allow medical aid-in-dying. Also writing In The Hill, Kim Callinan and Kevin Diaz, of Compassion & Choices, a national organization that advocates for medical aid-in-dying for terminally ill patients, said creation of the new religious freedom division has gotten little public attention. “But it should because it threatens to take away Americans’ access to numerous healthcare options,” they write.

The new division and proposed rule will impact the availability of end-of-life care options and reproductive healthcare services, they say.

The proposed rule includes instructions for how people can submit comments. For instance, electronic comments can be submitted through Tuesday at by searching for the Docket ID number HHS-OCR-2018- 0002 and following the instructions.

In announcing the proposed rule, HHS’ OCR said it is intended to enforce 25 existing laws that provide conscience protections for doctors and other healthcare workers in HHS-funded programs. 

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