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States, Cities Sue to Block Health Care ‘Conscience’ Rule

FILE - Attorney General of New York Letitia James speaks during an inauguration ceremony in New York, Jan. 6, 2019.

A coalition of 23 U.S. states and municipalities sued the Trump administration Tuesday to stop it from enforcing a rule that would make it easier for doctors and nurses to avoid performing abortions on religious or moral grounds.

The lawsuit led by New York Attorney General Letitia James said the expanded “conscience” protections could undermine the ability of states and cities to provide effective health care without jeopardizing billions of dollars a year in federal aid.

It also said the rule would upset legislative efforts to accommodate workers’ beliefs while ensuring that hospitals, other businesses and staff treat patients effectively.

Sterilizations and assisted suicide are among other medical procedures that might be affected, according to the complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan.

“The federal government is giving health care providers free license to openly discriminate and refuse care to patients,” James said in a statement.

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, is interviewed, Feb. 1, 2018, at the office of Health and Human Services in Washington.
Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, is interviewed, Feb. 1, 2018, at the office of Health and Human Services in Washington.

The rule is scheduled to take effect July 22. It will be enforced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The rule gives life and enforcement tools to conscience protection laws that have been on the books for decades. HHS finalized the conscience rule after more than a year of careful consideration and after analyzing over 242,000 public comments. We will defend the rule vigorously,” Roger Severino, director of HHS’ Office for Civil Rights, said in a statement.

Religious liberty

President Donald Trump, a Republican, has made expanding religious liberty a priority, and the proposed rule drew support from anti-abortion activists.

Critics, including some civil rights medical groups, have said the rule could deprive some patients, including gay and transgender people, of needed health care because they might be deemed less worthy of treatment.

The lawsuit said the rule could even prevent hospitals from asking applicants for nursing jobs whether they opposed giving measles vaccinations, even during an outbreak.

So far in 2019, the worst U.S. measles outbreak in a quarter century has sickened 880 people, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday.

23 plaintiffs

The 23 plaintiffs in Tuesday’s lawsuit are led by Democrats or often lean Democratic.

They also include New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.; the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin; and Cook County, Illinois.

Hundreds of lawsuits by Democratic-leaning states and municipalities have targeted White House policies under Trump.

The case is New York et al v U.S. Department of Health and Human Services et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 19-04676.