Bill to allow ‘conscience’ exemption for health care providers, insurers fails in committee

Rep. Brandt Smith

The House Public Health Committee on Thursday rejected a bill from Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) that would have created an avenue for health care workers, institutions and insurers to opt out of administering or paying for health care services on the basis of “religious, moral or ethical principles.” Smith did not rule out reviving the bill for a second vote at a later date.

Smith said House Bill 1628 was necessary to “clarify what we mean by the right of a health care worker to express their concerns about certain procedures they may be asked to perform. … We’re trying to protect everyone. And I really want to underscore the word everyone here.” He emphasized that the legislation prohibits providers or insurers from withholding “life-sustaining treatment” from any individual. “In emergency situations, there is no reasonable accommodation … [They] can’t walk away from an emergency situation.”

When asked later about the definition of “life-sustaining,” Smith mentioned transgender reassignment surgery and abortion. “When we talk about some of these social issues, and issues that are real divisive in our culture, there ought to be some reasonable accommodation for that person that’s working on the field. And that’s what this is trying to do.”

Rep. Stephen Magie (D-Conway), who is a doctor, told the committee that the bill “goes against the grain of what being a physician is all about. We take care of patients irregardless of where they’re from, what their background is, what they believe in, what they don’t believe in. They’re human beings. And we deliver a service to them at a time of need in their life.”

Luke McCoy of the Family Council, an organization that advocates for socially conservative causes, said the bill would protect doctors’ First Amendment rights and shield them from lawsuits. HB 1628 states that “a provider shall not be civilly, criminally, or administratively liable for declining to participate in a healthcare service that violates his or her conscience.” McCoy said, “This bill isn’t just for today; it’s also for the future. The medical industry is rapidly changing.”

Arkansas Surgeon General Gregory Bledsoe

But Arkansas Surgeon General Gregory Bledsoe argued that a “freedom of conscience” exemption was not necessary. “I haven’t had any members of the health care community come up and say that they felt like their beliefs were trampled upon. ... I think it’s well-intentioned but misguided,” he said. Bledsoe added later that “we have to be very cognizant of the sort of message that a bill like this sends. So if you’re a member of any sort of minority group … these sorts of bills send a message that threatens you. And it can be perceived that way, even if it’s not intended to be that way. … It sends a message to some members of those communities that our state is insensitive to them and is proactively trying to preempt something against them, especially when there’s not an acute need right now.”

Smith told the committee that the legislation prohibits a provider from denying health care services to a patient “based on the identity or status of the patient.”

The vote on HB 1628 was 8-11, with some Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the bill.

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