.- William J. Cox, President and Executive Director of the Alliance of Catholic Healthcare, has submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concerning proposed federal regulations which would protect the conscience rights of medical professionals. He said the new rules are âespecially importantâ in light of several attempts by California legislators to âsingle outâ and âblacklistâ Catholic hospitals.
âThe proposed regulation would help ensure that federal funds do not support morally coercive practices in violation of federal non-discrimination laws related to abortion,â Cox wrote in his September 16 letter to Michael Leavitt, HHS Secretary.
The Alliance of Catholic Healthcare represents Californiaâs Catholic health care systems and providers, a network that is the largest not-for-profit hospital system in California and the eighth largest in the
âWhile our members do not impose their religious and moral beliefs upon those they serve,â explained Cox, âthey do hold themselves accountable, as health care providers, to Catholic ethical and moral standards.â
Citing the ânoble American tradition of religious toleranceâ and constitutional guarantees of religious liberty as âcornerstonesâ of Catholic health care providersâ interactions with their patients and communities, Cox said such Catholic groups and individuals have come to rely upon federal and state statutes that protect them from religious discrimination.
He said such statutes are âespecially importantâ to religiously affiliated health care providers in California where, Cox charged, âseveral influential policymakers and State officials have engaged in a decade-long campaign to coerce them, under penalty of law, to provide medical services in violation of their deepest moral convictions.â
Cox cited a 1999 bill called California State Assembly Bill 525 (AB525) which he said would have ârequired Catholic hospitals to provide or arrange for abortions or lose tens of millions of dollars in annual state assistance.â The bill would have granted the attorney general the authority to review and restrict proposed mergers, including imposing restrictions that could violate Catholic ethics, and to âcharge our hospitals for the stateâs cost of doing so.â
The bill would also have required all health plans that contract with Catholic hospitals to single them out in their marketing materials to identify them as providers that do not provide abortions or other âreproductive services.â
Cox charged the bill with simply attempting to âblacklistâ Catholic institutions and their religious beliefs.
âAB 525 was aimed directly at Catholic health care providers,â Cox asserted, noting that the bill failed by a âmere ten votes.â
Other threats to religious freedom Cox cited included the California Medical Assistance Commissionâs (CMAC) ârepeated, but unsuccessfulâ attempts earlier in the late 1990s to force Catholic hospitals to provide abortion and other reproductive services as a condition of receiving a Medi-Cal (Medicaid) contract.
Californiaâs attorney general also filed suit against the federal Weldon Conscience Amendment, asking a federal court to declare the statute an unconstitutional infringement on the stateâs ability to enforce its abortion laws.
Such threats prompted Cox to endorse the new federal proposals for conscience protections.
âEnforcing these important and necessary statutes through the proposed regulatory protections will help ensure that health care professionals and institutions in California, and elsewhere, will be able to serve their patients and clients free from religious and moral discrimination,â he wrote.
Cox noted that current recipients of federal funds are not informed of federal conscience protection regulations in funding forms. The new proposals would correct this situation, he said.
Cox, who represents 9,600 active doctors, recommended âmore extensive compliance reviewâ of federal funding recipientsâ adherence to conscience protection rules, saying the Department of Health and Human Services should not merely react to complaints.
âWaiting for complaints of noncompliance to be filed may not achieve the desired result of compliance, as many individuals may not be fully aware of their conscience rights or the extent to which such rights are protected under federal law,â he wrote.
âKnowledge is power,â Cox concluded his letter. âBy instilling an awareness of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, and the right to be free from discrimination based upon the exercise of these rights, the proposed regulation will empower employees and other protected persons. We fully support the proposed rule.â