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January 24, 2018

HHS takes steps to expand moral, religious protections for providers; allow states to bar abortion providers from Medicaid

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    HHS on Friday took two steps that aim to expand protections for health care professionals who have moral or religious objections to certain medical care and make it easier for states to bar providers associated with abortion care from receiving Medicaid funds.

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    The actions come after the Trump administration last week announced the creation of a new HHS division tasked with enforcing protections for health care professionals who have moral or religious objections to certain medical care. HHS acting Secretary Eric Hargan said the new division carries out an executive order President Trump signed last year that instructed federal agencies to expand religious liberty under federal law.

    HHS' latest actions

    HHS on Friday released a proposed rule that aims to provide practical protections for individuals and entities with moral and religious objections to certain health services—such as assisted suicide and sterilization—that are involved in HHS-funded programs.

    The proposed rule would help HHS' Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforce 25 existing statutory protections intended to ensure entities and individuals are not "being coerced into participating in activities that violate their consciences, such as abortion," according to an HHS release. The proposed rule would apply to individuals and entities that receive funds through programs administered or funded either fully or partially through HHS. 

    HHS' OCR is accepting comments on the proposed rule over a 60-day comment period.

    In addition, CMS on Friday issued a guidance document to state Medicaid directors that rescinds guidance from 2016 that warned states that excluding an organization from state Medicaid programs because the organization provides abortion care could violate federal Medicaid law because it prevents beneficiaries from accessing health care from their preferred provider.


    Hargan said the proposed rule and guidance "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." Hargan added, "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."

    OCR Director Roger Severino said, "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." Severino added that the "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" (Finnegan, FierceHealthcare, 1/22; HHS release, 1/19; HHS' ORC proposed rule, 1/19).

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