Thursday, July 26, 2018
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the opening of a new division in January of this year: The Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR's primary mandate is to enforce refusal of care laws.
Refusal of care laws essentially empower medical providers to deny care to patients if they disagree with the ethics of a particular procedure based on their religious grounds. The purported goal of these laws is to protect a healthcare provider from being forced into providing care that "violates their conscience."
This is an Executive-ordered decision that does not require legislative or judicial approval to go into effect or to implement its new rules and regulations.
Critics of refusal of care laws express concern that these requirements do not simply "protect" health care providers consciences, but can instead seriously harm patients. These laws may lead to a pharmacist refusing to fill a birth control prescription, a doctor refusing hormone therapy to a transgender patient, limitations placed on services to LGBTQ persons and partners, and of course abortion services may also become more limited.
HHS does not require providers who refuse treatment to refer patients to other providers or provide any information at all on other providers.
The OCR further has authority to initiate compliance reviews of any organization receiving federal funding to ensure conformity to the new rules.
Earlier this month, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) filed a lawsuit against HHS for refusing to release records pertaining to the creation of the OCR. The organizations initially requested these records via a FOIA request in January 2018. The CRR and NWLC seek knowledge of why the new division was needed, how the OCR operates, allocates funding, and may be influenced by outside groups.
"We’re filing this lawsuit to force the Trump-Pence administration to justify why it’s using resources to fund discrimination, rather than to protect patients," said Gretchen Borchelt, NWLC Vice President for Reproductive Rights and Health.
HHS's new Office of Civil Rights follows additional moves by the Trump administration to limit equitable access to reproductive health care, including promoting the "Global Gag Rule," its domestic counterpart, and establishing regulations aimed at severely limiting funding to Title X programs.