Friday, December 19, 2008

HHS Adopts Final "Conscience Rules" To Protect Health Care Providers

The Department of Health and Human Services published in today's Federal Register the final version of its "conscience rules" that protect health care providers who have moral or religious objections to performing or furnishing particular services. (HHS News Release.) The Federal Register release titled Ensuring That Department of Health and Human Services Funds Do Not Support Coercive or Discriminatory Policies or Practices in Violation of Federal Law provides that the new rules take effect January 20, 2009-- just before the change in administrations.

The new rules protect institutional health care providers as well as individual employees of HHS grant recipients. Certain health care providers must certify their compliance with the new regulations. The rules prohibit state and local governments, as well as health care institutions, that receive federal funds from discriminating against those who object to furnishing abortion, sterilization and various other services. Slightly different constraints apply to different categories of funding recipients. One provision prohibits entities that receive HHS research grants from discriminating in employment against employees who refuse to take part in the research on the ground that it "would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions, or because of the religious beliefs or moral convictions concerning such activities themselves." The rules also encourage providers to disclose clearly to their patients what services they do and do not provide.

Reporting on the new rules, today's Washington Post says that "officials at hospitals and clinics predicted the regulation will cause widespread disruptions...." The paper speculates that clashes over the new rules could become more intense if embryonic stem cell therapies expand. the rules were published for comment last August. (See prior posting.)