Arkansas’s senate just passed a religious exemptions bill for medical personnel that’s so expansive that it would allow any medical professional to refuse to help LGBTQ people – or even refer them to someone else – and face no consequences for that discrimination.
The bill “is a blatantly discriminatory attempt to strip LGBTQ people of basic rights,” said HRC’s Eric Reece. “Health care should be available to all who need it, not withheld by providers because of hate and fear.”
The “Medical Ethics and Diversity Act” (S.B. 289) just passed its third reading in the state senate this week and has been sent to committee in the state House.
The law defines “discrimination” as taking any action against someone at all, and then says that medical professionals should not be discriminated against for their “religious, moral, ethical, or philosophical beliefs.”
The bill lists protected health care professionals including doctors and nurses and any “individual who furnishes or assists in the provision of a healthcare service” including social workers and pharmacists.
The bill even mentions employers who provide health care as part of their employees’ compensation – even they can ask that employees be denied a specific medical procedure, as long as they claim that their “conscience” requires them to.
It says that no one can take any action against a health care provider who refuses to provide care because of their conscience, including bringing a lawsuit against them.
In fact, the bill says that a health care professional could sue their employer if they feel like they’re being forced to provide health care that they don’t want to, and the bill says that that exemption applies even if a procedure is deemed “necessary” for a patient.
Critics of the bill worried that LGBTQ people could face discrimination when seeking health care. For example, a pharmacist could refuse to fill a transgender person’s hormone replacement therapy prescription, a fertility clinic could turn away a lesbian couple, or a doctor could refuse to prescribe PrEP.
But the bill could go further than that and could allow social workers and counselors to misgender trans clients or pediatricians to refuse to treat children with two mothers or two fathers. Especially in rural areas, it might be difficult for LGBTQ patients to find another health care provider covered by their insurance who is willing to help them.
Some Democrats said that there’s nothing to stop a doctor from refusing to treat patients of the wrong political party as well and using the bill as a justification.
“The country is as divided as it’s been in my lifetime… The way that this bill is written, I see it going into the doctor’s office,” said state Sen. Clarke Tucker (D).
Arkansas Sen. Kim Hammer (R) sponsored the bill, and she said the bill “is about elective things, things you can take time to find a provider who’s willing to offer the service rather than a force a provider who doesn’t believe in doing it.”
The word “elective” doesn’t appear once in the bill, and the bill even provides religious exemptions to hospitals, ambulances, and nursing home staff, which could be very difficult for people to shop around for just to find someone willing to treat them.
The Republican-controlled state senate passed the bill with a 27-6 vote.
The Trump administration also tried to implement expansive religious exemptions for health care providers, but several judges struck down his rules.
One of the Department of Health and Human Services rules developed under Donald Trump was so harsh that one judge noted “an ambulance driver would be free, on religious or moral grounds, to eject a patient en route to a hospital upon learning that the patient needed an emergency abortion.”