In a remarkably last-minute fashion, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued final regulations protecting health care providers who withhold medical care based on conflicting moral beliefs.
The rule, which covers federally funded health care providers, takes effect January 18, 2009 — the required 30 days after its under-the-wire December 19 publication. The provisions of the rule are intended to:
- clarify that nondiscrimination protections apply to institutional health care providers as well as to individual employees working for federally funded health care providers (protected employees include anyone with a “reasonable connection to objectionable care”);
- require HHS-funded providers to certify compliance with provider conscience rights laws, and
- permit the HHS Office for Civil Rights to receive and act on complaints of discrimination addressed by existing statutes and this regulation.
Entities that violate the regulations could lose federal funding or even be required to reimburse already-distributed funds.
In an HHS news release, 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.
This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience.” Critics of the rule argue that it will result in restriction of health services, including fertility treatment, scientific research, abortion, and prescription of contraceptives, and some opponents of the rule have already begun mobilizing efforts to see the regulations overturned in the incoming Obama administration.