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House passes religious refusal bill

The House on Wednesday voted 245-182 to approve a bill (S 304) that would strengthen federal protections for health care providers who cite religious objections to providing abortion care, The Hill reports.

According to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) proposed the bill in response to a recent HHS investigation into California's abortion coverage requirements (Ferris, The Hill, 7/13).

Background

In 2014, the California Catholic Conference (CCC) filed a federal civil rights complaint with HHS, alleging that the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) violated the Weldon Amendment by requiring health insurance plans in the state to cover abortion care.

Under the federal Weldon Amendment, the federal government may withhold funding from agencies, state or local governments and other programs for discriminating against hospitals, insurers or physicians over their refusal to participate in care or coverage related to abortion. Currently, only HHS can enforce the amendment, which has been passed each year in federal appropriations measures since 2005.

Last month, HHS rejected CCC's challenge to DMHC's regulations. Jocelyn Samuels, head of HHS' OCR, in a letter stated that California's rule did not violate the Weldon Amendment because the amendment applies to the health care entities, in this case the health insurers, and not to the employers using those entities' services (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/22).

Bill details

Black's bill states that federal, state and local governments may not punish or discriminate against health care providers, including employers, insurers and hospitals, that refuse to provide abortion care. It would also allow entities that allege such discrimination to file a lawsuit over the matter (Jalonick, AP/Sacramento Bee, 7/13). Under the bill, the complainant would not be required to go first to HHS.

According to The Hill, the legislation is not expected to pass in the Senate.

Comments

Liberal lawmakers called the bill "destructive" and "unnecessary," The Hill reports (The Hill, 7/13). Lawmakers explained that federal law already permits health care providers to refuse to provide abortion care based on their personal beliefs.

Moreover, liberal lawmakers said the bill could further encroach on abortion rights by permitting providers to withhold a patients' medical data if the provider thought the information might lead to an abortion. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) stated, "Women have the same rights to access to health care as men do, and no boss should be able to deny them that right" (AP/Sacramento Bee, 7/13).