1. Opinion

Column: New federal 'conscience rule' puts patients' rights at risk


Special to the Tampa Bay Times

A rule issued last month by the recently created "Conscience and Religious Freedom" division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights attempts to force secular systems to allow religious doctrine — not patient values — to dictate their patient care.

This final "conscience rule" allows any individual or entity involved in a patient's care — from a hospital's board of directors to the receptionist that schedules procedures — to put their personal beliefs ahead of a patient's health and values without any duty to make sure somebody else treats them. Hospitals that don't follow this directive will lose their federal funding for patient services.

Doctors should have a right to decline to treat a patient if they are morally opposed, and they already have this right. This new rule gives them the ability to impose their beliefs on a dying person.

A doctor who refuses to prescribe adequate pain medication with no referral to another doctor could seek protection under this rule.

Even the designated health care proxy carrying out a loved one's wishes as written in their advance directive will be powerless if a health care staff person objects. Dying patients with no hope of a cure may be forced to remain in a persistent vegetative state against their stated wishes; endure repeated electric shocks to their heart to resuscitate them, instead of allowing a peaceful passing; endure agonizing, life-prolonging treatments, even if they have suffered from dementia for decades.

This new federal rule will turbo charge the impact the Catholic Church religious directives and others have on thwarting patients' preferences for end-of-life care. These directives are inconsistent with the beliefs of two out of three Americans — and seven out of ten Catholic Americans, according to a survey conducted by Lifeway Research online, a Christian-based research company.

Under this rule, health care providers won't be required to give patients a referral, abandoning them during their greatest time of need. And health systems will be forced to allow their workers' religious beliefs to trump their patients' values or lose critical federal funding if they don't comply with the rule. Even more concerning is that government attorneys, funded with taxpayer dollars, would be available to sue health care entities who sanction workers who disregard patients stated or documented preferences.

This federal rule may be unconstitutional. In fact, the rule puts individual religious beliefs above the constitutional right recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health to refuse unwanted medical treatment. For example, it would allow any employee to refuse a patient's request to discontinue life-sustaining treatment.

It could take years before our legal team joins forces with others to overturn this rule. In the meantime, unfortunately, more people will be needlessly suffering rather than peacefully dying.

Kim Callinan is CEO of Compassion & Choices. She earned a graduate certificate in public health from the University of South Florida.