Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill allowing medical providers to deny service to prospective patients, or refuse to perform certain procedures based on their moral or ethical beliefs.
The new law, known as the “Protections of Medical Conscience Act,” easily passed the Republican-led legislature, even though it does not define what constitutes a “moral” or “ethical” belief. The impetus for the law is to protect doctors from being sued or coerced into performing procedures they have reservations about, such as abortions or gender-affirming surgeries for transgender individuals, reports the Pensacola News Journal.
Under the law, which goes into effect on July 1, any medical provider, including doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, pharmacists, mental health professionals, or lab technicians, as well as nursing home workers and hospital administrators, may refuse to provide care to patients if doing so would violate their conscience. Insurance companies also enjoy the right to deny care based on any moral, ethical, or religious objections.
Health care professionals are also empowered to refuse to conduct research, update medical records, conduct testing or blood draws, or even make referrals if they believe doing so would enable a patient to make decisions or take actions that violate their provider’s personal moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.
The Florida law also allows health care employers to discriminate in hiring and prevents medical boards from disciplining providers who deliberately spread misinformation about certain treatments, procedures, or diseases, such as a doctor who opposes COVID-19 vaccinations or believes that antiretrovirals are ineffective at treating HIV.
While the newly signed law says patients can’t be discriminated against or denied care based on a host of personal characteristics, such as race, color, religion or national origin, it contains no such protections for sexual orientation or gender identity.
According to the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that focuses on LGBTQ-related policies, prior to the Florida law’s passage, about 1 in 8 LGBTQ Americans lived in a state where they could be denied medical care and are barred from bringing lawsuits against providers who refuse treatment. However, Florida’s law appears to go much further, in terms of its breadth, than past laws protecting medical providers’ “rights of conscience.”
Critics of the new Florida law argue that it grants such overly broad rights to providers and insurers that some patients may ultimately be denied potentially life-saving care, including gender-affirming medical treatments, HIV antiretroviral treatments, HIV prevention medications such as PrEP, or even testing for sexually transmitted infections or certain types of cancers.
“This bill is shocking in its breadth, vagueness, and government overreach into the private sector and regulated businesses,” Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said in a statement. “It goes far beyond any alleged claims of religious freedom, as it applies not just to religious objections but also to ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ beliefs.
“Does the legislature really want to force private businesses to retain employees who refuse to do their job on the basis of a subjectively held alleged ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ belief? What does this even mean?” added Gross. “Who determines what constitutes a sincerely held moral or ethical belief, and more importantly, why should access to health care be denied based on such vague, imprecise, and subjective terms? We have grave concerns that this bill will lead to discriminatory healthcare practices and that LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, and those most marginalized in our communities will be disproportionately harmed.”
Gross noted that the law is so overly broad that any person could potentially find a loophole to justify denial of care, such as a doctor or nurse who opposes extramarital sex refusing to help deliver a baby belonging to a single mother, a medical clerk refusing to return calls or schedule follow-up appointments due to taking issue with a person’s lifestyle choices, or a pharmacist that refuses to fill prescriptions for birth control.
Florida’s statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, Equality Florida, also denounced the new law.
“This bill is a broad license for health care providers and insurance companies to refuse services to people. … It gives health care providers and insurance companies an unprecedented ‘religious’ or ‘moral’ right to refuse to provide services. This puts patients in harm’s way, is antithetical to the job of health care providers, and puts the most vulnerable Floridians in danger,” Brandon Wolf, Equality Florida’s press secretary, said in a statement.
“Our state should be in the business of increasing access to medical care, not giving providers and companies a sweeping carve out of nondiscrimination laws,” Wolf added. “Shame on the governor for putting Floridians’ health at risk to score cheap political points.”
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