Denouncing a Trump administration push to protect so-called "conscience rights in healthcare" as an attack on reproductive rights and marginalized patients, two dozen states and cities filed a complaint against the Health and Human Services Department and demanded that the rule be lifted.
New York Attorney General Letitia James led states including Massachusetts, Oregon, Virginia, and cities like Chicago in filing the lawsuit Tuesday, two months before the rule is set to go into effect.
"The devastating consequences of the rule would fall particularly hard on marginalized patients, including LGBTQ patients, who already confront discrimination in obtaining healthcare." —Letitia James, New York Attorney General
Under the rule, opponents fear doctors and nurses would be given carte blanche to refuse to administer any medical procedure—with abortion care, gender confirmation surgery and hormone therapy for transgender patients, euthanasia, and sterilization likely coming under attack.
Employers would also be able to refuse to provide insurance coverage for procedures they consider objectionable.
"Once again, the Trump administration is putting politics over the health and safety of Americans," said James in a statement. "The federal government is giving healthcare providers free license to openly discriminate and refuse care to patients—a gross misinterpretation of religious freedom that will have devastating consequences on communities throughout the country."
Allowing providers to refuse to provide treatment due to their religious or moral beliefs could leave patients without life-saving care in many cases, critics say.
"The devastating consequences of the rule would fall particularly hard on marginalized patients, including LGBTQ patients, who already confront discrimination in obtaining healthcare," James said.
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"President Trump's new conscience rule prioritizes providers' beliefs over the medical needs of patients," said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is not part of the lawsuit, in a statement. "A doctor could withhold information about medical options from a pregnant patient carrying a fetus that will not survive outside the womb."
In addition to endangering individual patients who could be refused care, the lawsuit alleges, the rule allows the federal government to withhold "billions of dollars in federal health funds to the plaintiffs if the department determines that in its view 'there is a failure to comply'" with the guidelines. In other words, a state that demands healthcare providers administer legal, safe medical procedures to patients regardless of their personal beliefs about the procedure could lose funding that millions rely on for their healthcare.
"States and cities rely upon those funds for countless programs to promote the public health of their residents, including Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, HIV/AIDS and STD prevention and education, and substance abuse and mental health treatment," James said.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who filed a separate lawsuit this week, denounced the so-called "conscience rule" as a "refusal rule" and part of the Republican Party's attack on women's ability to access comprehensive healthcare including abortions.
— Xavier Becerra (@XavierBecerra) May 22, 2019
The rule is scheduled to go into effect July 22.
"When the health of our residents is at stake," James said, "and the safety of vulnerable populations hang in the balance, we cannot rest until this 'healthcare refusal' rule is stopped."