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Ohio governor signs bill with exemption that could allow doctors to refuse LGBTQ patients

A doctor writing with a teen patient and another patient. Maybe the dishy doctor is writing a prescription for puberty blockers, as described in the article? It's a mystery... well, less a mystery and more like it's a stock photo
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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has signed a bill that could allow doctors, hospitals, insurers, and other health care professionals and companies to deny services if they have an objection based on “moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.”

Women’s rights and LGBTQ equality advocates are sounding the alarm in the state about the sweeping religious exemption language included in a 2,438 page budget bill signed last Wednesday by DeWine.

Related: Arkansas legislature passes bill to allow EMTs & doctors to refuse to treat LGBTQ people

“Today Governor DeWine enshrined LGBTQ discrimination into law, threatening the medical well being of more than 380,000 LGBTQ people in Ohio, one of the largest LGBTQ populations anywhere in the country,” said Human Rights Campaign (HRC) President Alphonso David in a statement. “Medical practitioners in Ohio can deny care or coverage for basic, medically-necessary, and potentially life-saving care to LGBTQ people simply because of who they are.”

The text inserted into the budget bill echoes bills considered in other states this past year. Arkansas passed a bill with a similar language and the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) was involved in editing the bill.

The religious exemption language came as a surprise because it was included in the large budget bill and wasn’t even one of the many initiatives in the budget bill that the governor’s website highlighted.

“They know that they couldn’t pass this on its merits as a standalone bill, because literally no one is asking for this to be passed,” said Dominic Detwiler of Equality Ohio.

The anti-choice organization Ohio Right to Life celebrated the religious exemption language, calling it “fantastic.” The group thanked state Sen. Terry Johnson (R) for inserting the language into the bill.

The Ohio Senate GOP said that the religious exemptions are necessary because “the First Amendment matters,” even though the First Amendment is already a law that is enforced.

“It begins a slippery slope when we start picking and choosing who we can treat and who we don’t want to treat,” Randy Phillips of the Greater Dayton LGBT Center told WCPO Cincinnati. “How many are going to be denied care simply because they are living authentically?”

And Detwiler stressed that the bill is “another opportunity for health care providers to discriminate against LGBTQ people.”

In 2017, the Center for American Progress found in a survey that eight percent of gay and bi people and 29% of transgender people said they had been denied care because of their identities, and 41% of LGBTQ people who lived outside of urban areas said it would be “very difficult” or “not possible” to find an alternative if a hospital refused to provide care.

While it’s too early to tell how courts will interpret Ohio’s new religious exemption language or Arkansas’s law, Detwiler warned that it could increase discrimination against LGBTQ patients, which often goes unreported.

“Seeing the senate kind of encourage people to discriminate against others is really just not the right direction,” he said.

The conservative organization Center for Christian Virtue called the accusation that the bill will lead to discrimination “insane” because the bill is only about procedures, not people.

If this argument sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same debate that comes up when discussing businesses that refuse to serve LGBTQ people. They often argue that they’re willing to serve individual LGBTQ people, but they don’t want to sell products that will be used in same-sex couple’s weddings, in Pride celebrations, by same-sex couples, or to help or celebrate a transition.

“The person might not be saying, ‘I’m discriminating against you because you’re LGBTQ,'” Detwiler said. “But a person being LGBTQ and having HIV could give that doctor a reason not to treat them for HIV.”

The bill was opposed by the health insurance industry in Ohio. Even though the industry just won a new reason to deny care, the Ohio Association of Health Plans said that it harms insurers’ “business model” if doctors and hospitals start refusing to provide services that insurers are selling policies to cover.

“We believe the policy could prohibit individuals from getting the care they receive when they need it,” said a spokesperson for the industry organization.

The bill had strong backing from anti-choice activists, who said that it prevents doctors from being forced to perform abortions. This is not a thing that happens, but Christian conservatives said that it’s theoretically possible that doctors could be forced by the state to abort fetuses at some point in the future.

“We needed this to ensure on the state level that our state-licensed medical professionals, whoever it may be, can sleep well at night knowing that they don’t have to wake up the following day and do something that violates a deeply held religious belief,” said Mike Gonidakis of Ohio Right to Life, who added that the language is “fantastic.”

The Columbus Dispatch asked Gonidakis if he could name even one instance of a doctor being forced to perform an abortion against their will in the state – or any other service they didn’t want to perform – and he could not.

Jaime Miracle of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio said that the law has nothing to do with protecting doctors from being forced to perform procedures they don’t want to perform and said that the fact that insurers are included in the bill, saying that that is “a direct risk for the health of Ohioans.”

The organization also pointed to pharmacies which could refuse to provide contraception or abortion pills on religious grounds, limiting people’s access to health care.

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