July 2, 2019

HHS in a court filing Saturday said it is delaying implementation of a rule intended to enforce protections for health care professionals who have moral or religious objections to providing certain medical care, including abortion care and medically assisted death.

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Background: Final 'conscience protection' rule prompts lawsuits

The 440-page final rule is designed to help HHS' Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforce 25 existing statutory protections intended to ensure entities and individuals are not forced to participate in medical procedures that violate their consciences.

For instance, the final rule will allow doctors, nurses, and other health care workers, including schedulers, to decline to be involved in medical procedures that violate their moral or religious beliefs. Specifically, the final rule will protect such workers if they refuse to provide, participate in, pay for, or offer a referral for services that violate their moral or religious beliefs.

Under the final rule, health care workers will be able to file complaints with OCR if they believe they have experienced discrimination because they declined to participate in specific medical procedures. OCR said it will enforce the statutory protections in the same manner it enforces other civil rights requirements, such as those prohibiting discrimination on the basis of national origin or the basis of race.

The final rule originally was scheduled to take effect July 22.

However, the Trump administration is facing several lawsuits seeking to block the so-called "conscience protection" rule.

A coalition of civil rights organizations and a group of nearly two dozen states and localities each have filed their own lawsuits against the rule. The civil rights organizations argue that the final rule is unconstitutional and exceeds HHS' statutory authority, while the local governments argue the final rule could jeopardize patients' access to care.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England also have filed a lawsuit seeking to block the rule, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association and Public Health Solutions. Broadly, those lawsuits argue that enforcing the rule would encourage discrimination against women, racial minorities, low-income individuals, and people who are gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer by reducing access to legal health are procedures.

HHS says it is delaying rule's implementation

HHS issued a court filing Saturday as part of the lawsuit waged against the rule by state and localities. The department in the filing said HHS is delaying the final rule's implementation until at least Nov. 22.

According to Politico's "Pulse," an HHS spokesperson said, "In light of significant litigation over the rule, HHS agreed to a stipulated request to delay the effective date of the rule until Nov. 22, 2019." The spokesperson said the delay will "allow the parties more time to respond to the litigation and to grant entities affected by the rule more time to prepare for compliance," "Pulse" reports.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera (D), who is leading the lawsuit, said, "Faced with the law, the Trump administration blinked." He continued, "We have won this battle—and it was an important one—but the fight is not over" (Axelrod, The Hill, 6/29; Johnson, Reuters, 6/29; Diamond, "Pulse," Politico, 7/1).

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