HHS proposes new provider conscience rule

The Health and Human Services Department will publish a draft regulation to revise federal standards for conscience- and religious-based objections to providing some types of healthcare, the department announced Thursday.

The proposed rule rescinds most of a rule, widely opposed within the healthcare sector, which President Donald Trump’s administration promulgated that never took effect after federal courts struck it down. President George W. Bush implemented the first federal “conscience clause” regulation in 2008 and its reach has varied as the White House shifted between Republicans, who support stronger protections for providers, and Democrats, who favor promoting broad access to healthcare.

The Trump administration’s rule would have expanded the right of healthcare providers, health insurance companies and their employees to refuse to perform procedures or dispense products based on moral or religious objections, and would have cut off federal dollars to organizations that didn’t comply.

At the time, the American Medical Association said the rule would have allowed physicians to “refuse medically appropriate care even when their refusal jeopardizes another’s life and safety.”

The proposed rule unveiled Thursday would strip most of those provisions and create additional safeguards to protect against religious discrimination, according to HHS. The portions the department proposes to eliminate are “redundant, unlawful, confusing or undermine the balance Congress struck between safeguarding conscience rights and protecting access to healthcare, or because significant questions have been raised as to their legal authorization,” the draft regulation says.

“No one should be discriminated against because of their religious or moral beliefs, especially when they are seeking or providing care,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a news release. “The proposed rule strengthens protections for people with religious or moral objections while also ensuring access to care for all in keeping with the law.”

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