NEWS
January 22, 2018

New Law Gives Nurses And Healthcare Workers Religious Protections - Medicaid Changes

New Law Gives Nurses And Healthcare Workers Religious Protections - Medicaid Changes
Angelina Walker By: Angelina Walker

Last week, the Trump administration introduced a new federal office - The Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom. The newly created division of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office for Civil Rights is said to protect health care workers who refuse to partake in certain medical procedures due to moral or religious objections. 

Under the new protections doctors, nurses and other medical professionals are permitted to refuse care or deny certain procedures that go against their moral or religious beliefs. Such procedures include, abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide, said the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in an announcement on Friday. 

Under the Obama-era policies, medical professionals were not permitted to refuse treatment to patients based on their own moral or religious beliefs. However, the Obama policy was challenged in court by the Franciscan Alliance, a Christian healthcare organization in Texas, on the basis of gender identity and termination of pregnancy.

The Trump policy reverses the Obama-era policies, many of which were enforced mainly to protect LGBTQ people and women. More information about the new office is still being released but, the policies seem to primarily protect healthcare workers from participating in abortions that go against their personal and religious beliefs. However, according to a report by Politico, the protections could extend to the care of transgender patients seeking to transition.

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has added a new section to the website for the Division on Conscience and Religious Freedom. The web page details instructions for patients, healthcare workers, and organizations to file civil rights complaints against “healthcare or social service” providers who have violated the conscience protections. 

The office will uphold and enforce current federal anti-discrimination and privacy laws. Violators will risk losing government funding. 

Changes To Medicaid

On Friday, January 19, 2018, HHS restored a separate action allowing state directors the flexibility to decide Medicare and Medicaid program standards.  The department issued a press release titled, HHS Takes Major Actions to Protect Conscience Rights and Life including a letter with new guidance regarding Medicaid to state directors. 

“HHS’ Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is issuing new guidance to state Medicaid directors restoring state flexibility to decide program standards. The letter issued today rescinds 2016 guidance that specifically restricted states’ ability to take certain actions against family-planning providers that offer abortion services.”

The press release also states that,

“HHS’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is announcing a new proposed rule to enforce 25 existing statutory conscience protections for Americans involved in HHS-funded programs, which protect people from being coerced into participating in activities that violate their consciences, such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide.” 

This action reverses the Obama administration’s protections that were set to restrict states from taking action against abortion-related service providers.  

The Department of Health and Human Services stated, 

“Today’s actions represent promises kept by President Trump and a rollback of policies that had prevented many Americans from practicing their profession and following their conscience at the same time. Americans of faith should feel at home in our health system, not discriminated against, and states should have the right to take reasonable steps in overseeing their Medicaid programs and being good stewards of public funds,” said Acting HHS Secretary Eric D. Hargan.

Protecting Healthcare Workers Religious Liberties

Proponents of the newly created division say it protects healthcare workers’ rights to religious freedom. 

“For too long too many of these healthcare practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and moral conviction. The federal government and state governments have hounded religious hospitals and the men and women who staff them, forcing them to provide and refer for services that violate their consciences,” said Eric Hargan, Acting HHS Secretary. 

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Roger Severino, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights commented on the announcement, 

 “America’s doctors and nurses are dedicated to saving lives and should not be bullied out of the practice of medicine simply because they object to performing abortions against their conscience. Conscience protection is a civil right guaranteed by laws that too often haven’t been enforced. Today’s proposed rule will provide our new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division with enforcement tools that will make sure our conscience laws are not empty words on paper, but guarantees of justice to victims of unlawful discrimination.” 

Discrimination Against LGBTQ And Women

Opponents to the new Division of Conscience and Religion Freedom are weary of the division’s intentions. The overall opposition is saying that the Trump administration is using religion as a guise to discriminate against women and LGBTQ people.

Those opposing the new office have begun to protest at the HHS headquarters. The hashtag #RxForDescrimination is trending on Twitter with thousands of people voicing their opposition. 

Catholics For Choice voiced their opposition in a statement, 

“This decision—not so coincidentally timed around the March for Life—is a cheap attempt by President Trump to pander to ultraconservative special interests that got him into power. Time and time again, we have seen this administration radically redefine religious freedom to impose one set of ultraconservative beliefs on all Americans,”  said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, Catholics For Choice Vice President. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also released multiple statements opposing the new division saying, “it puts patients last — a betrayal of the mission of the Department of Health and Health Services.”

Government officials are also speaking up in opposition,

“This would be yet another attempt to let ideology dictate who is able to get the care they need. Any approach that would deny or delay health care to someone and jeopardize their well-being for ideological reasons is unacceptable,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

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