New ‘conscience’ rules for providers stir concerns among health advocates

12/19/2008

WASHINGTON In a move opposed by many healthcare advocates, physicians and pharmacy operators, the Bush Administration issued new rules to formally protect doctors, pharmacists and other healthcare workers who refuse to serve patients on moral grounds.

The new protections, announced Thursday by the Department of Health & Human Services, would take effect in the final days of the Bush White House. In effect, they would strengthen rules already in place to prevent health care institutions, retail pharmacies and other provider organizations from discriminating against workers who refuse to provide services on the basis of conscience, such as abortions or the dispensing of emergency contraceptives.

To do so, HHS would wield a potent weapon: the withholding of any federal funds to health providers who take any action against workers who refuse to serve patients because of their moral beliefs.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” said HHS secretary Mike Leavitt.

Many health advocacy groups oppose the administration’s 11th-hour move, fearing that it could disrupt needed health services for patients, even including counseling about birth-control options, including contraception and abortion. They fear the rules would also protect pharmacy workers who refuse to dispense birth control pills from any disciplinary action by their employer.

Also likely to oppose the measure is the new occupant of the White House and many members of Congress. President-elect Barack Obama was critical of the Bush “right of conscience” rule when the outgoing president proposed it over the summer, and Obama has pledged to review all last-minute regulations issued by Pres. Bush once he takes office in January.

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