Las Vegas Sun

June 16, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Warped view of religious liberty is just a license for discrimination

President Donald Trump’s May 2 announcement of his administration’s new “conscience” rule for health care providers was swamped by a number of other stories on a busy news day.

But the rule was a bombshell in terms of its potential ramifications. Designed to allow doctors and nurses to avoid providing services and care based on religious or moral grounds, the regulation created all kinds of awful scenarios — gay and transgender people being denied treatment of any kind, women being turned away when seeking birth control and reproductive services, nurses refusing to administer vaccinations, and many more. Even emergency care could be withheld.

So it was a relief to see Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford sign the state into a lawsuit aimed at blocking Trump’s misguided rule.

This statement from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led the suit, hits directly at the heart of the matter: “The federal government is giving health care providers free license to openly discriminate and refuse care to patients.”

Nevada is among 19 states that have backed the suit, along with four counties and municipalities.

They claim that in addition to putting Americans in danger of not receiving needed care, the rule could hinder states from providing effective health care without risking the loss of billions of dollars a year in federal aid.

Ford, in a statement, said the rule would “substantially change the delivery of health care at the expense of patients” by allowing “individuals and entire institutions to deny lawful and medically necessary care to patients, even in cases of emergencies.”

The AG’s office went on to explain that the rule would drastically increase the number of providers entitled to refuse care — looping in ambulance drivers, receptionists, emergency room doctors and even customer service representatives at insurance companies. The right of refusal would also become “absolute and categorical,” Ford’s office says. That means that when an individual makes an objection, there’s no recourse for an employer or health provider.

As for the federal funding, the AG says that if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determines that states or cities have failed to comply with the rule — or even if subcontractors don’t comply — the feds could cut off money for Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, AIDS prevention and education, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and more.

That translates to a risk for hundreds of thousands of Nevadans, and untold millions of Americans, unless the courts intervene.

Here’s hoping the rule is blocked before its scheduled effective date of July 22, and ultimately is ruled unconstitutional.

It’s one thing for health care providers to have ethical or moral objections, but it’s quite another for them to deny care based on those concerns. Responsible providers may avoid performing services themselves but can and do find ways to ensure their patients are treated.

“Religious liberty doesn’t include a right to be exempt from laws protecting our health or barring discrimination,” the ACLU’s Louise Melling said in a statement. “It doesn’t mean a right to refuse to transport a patient in need because she had an abortion. It doesn’t mean refusing care to a patient because she is transgender. Medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care.

“Denying patients health care is not liberty. Choosing your patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom.”

Exactly. This is a rule with frightening consequences. Nevada is doing the right thing in battling against it, not only for the sake of ourselves but our fellow Americans.