As complaints trickle in, protecting workers’ religious rights could cost health industry upward of $300M in first year

A physician in scrubs in a hospital hallway
A proposed rule to protect healthcare workers' religious rights will cost healthcare organizations and the government millions of dollars a year. (Getty/NanoStockk)

The Trump administration’s new effort to protect the religious rights of healthcare workers will not come without a price for healthcare organizations.

Implementing a proposed rule (PDF) from the Department of Health and Human Services to further protect healthcare workers’ “conscience rights” will cost the industry an estimated $312.3 million in year one.

The rule, which will allow HHS’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to enforce 25 existing laws that provide conscience protections for doctors and other healthcare workers in HHS-funded programs, will cost $125.5 million annually in the following years, according to the government’s estimate.

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More than 40 complaints have been filed since President Donald Trump’s election, alleging violations of conscience and religious rights, a small number given an estimated 18 million people working in the nation’s healthcare system, according to the Associated Press.

“This is looking for a problem,” Susan Berke Fogel, a lawyer for the nonprofit National Health Law Program, told the news service.

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HHS last month announced plans to set up a “conscience and religious freedom” division within OCR, a move the agency said will protect healthcare workers who have moral or religious objections to providing medical services, such as abortion, sterilization or treating transgender patients.

Opponents reacted swiftly to the controversial plan, saying it will promote discrimination against women and LGBTQ patients.

Critics fear the new division will allow healthcare workers to use their religious beliefs as a reason to deny care to some patients, and nurse and physician groups have said anyone who does so could run afoul of professional ethics codes. 

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Hospitals, nursing homes, state health programs, pharmacies and other service providers must foot the bill to meet new the requirements, including posting employee notices, drafting policies and maintaining documentation, according to the proposed rule.

“Considering the number of entities affected and excluding the costs to OCR, this rule is estimated to cost each affected person, entity and healthcare entity, on average, $665 in year one, which drops by 60% to about $266 annually in years two through five,” according to the rule.

The rule is expected to cost the government $900,000 a year to implement.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Roger Severino, director of HHS’ civil rights division, said the proposed change will give conscience and religious freedom rights “the proper focus they deserve.” He said the government was trying to make the burden on the healthcare system as light as possible.