HHS Proposes Rule Supporting Health Care Providers' Right of Conscience'

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published a new proposed regulation in the Federal Register on Aug. 21 that the agency says would increase awareness of, and compliance with, three separate laws protecting federally funded health care providers' right of conscience.

"This proposed regulation is about the legal right of a health care professional to practice according to their conscience," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said. “Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience. Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a health care degree."

Over the past three decades, Congress has enacted several statutes to safeguard these freedoms, also known as provider conscience rights, and the proposed regulation would increase awareness of and compliance with these laws.

  • Specifically, the proposed rule would:
  • Clarify that non-discrimination protections apply to institutional health care providers as well as to individual employees working for recipients of certain funds from HHS;
  • Require recipients of certain HHS funds to certify their compliance with laws protecting provider conscience rights;
  • Designate the HHS Office for Civil Rights as the entity to receive complaints of discrimination addressed by the existing statutes and the proposed regulation; and
  • Charge HHS officials to work with any state or local government or entity that may be in violation of existing statutes and the proposed regulation to encourage voluntary steps to bring that government or entity into compliance with the law. If, despite the department's efforts, compliance is not achieved, HHS officials will consider all legal options, including termination of funding and the return of funds paid out in violation of the nondiscrimination provisions.

"Many health care providers routinely face pressure to change their medical practice - often in direct opposition to their personal convictions," said Admiral Joxel Garcia, M.D., HHS assistant secretary of health. "During my practice as an OB-GYN, I witnessed this first-hand. But health care providers shouldn't have to check their conscience at the hospital door. This proposed rule will help ensure that doesn't happen."

While the proposed rule would strengthen provider conscience rights, HHS says the rule would in no way restrict health care providers from performing any legal service or procedure. If a procedure is legal, a patient will still have the ability to access that service from a medical professional or institution that does not assert a conflict of conscience. For example, the proposed regulation does not affect the ability of private clinics to provide abortion services in accordance with the law.

The proposed regulation is available at www.hhs.gov/news/press/2008pres/08/20080821reg.pdf.

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