AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The federal Department of Health and Human Services has issued a new rule that governs discrimination in health care. It gives health care providers more leeway to refuse to provide services like abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide. All they need to do is cite a religious or conscience objection. Here explain all of this is NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak. Hey, Alison.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So can you just tell me what's happening here? What is HHS changing in terms of the rules that affect health care providers and hospitals?
KODJAK: So the rule is really a statement of priorities for HHS and particularly for its Office for Civil Rights. It shows that the agency is, you know, focused on protecting the religious convictions of health care providers and anyone who works in a health care setting, in fact. And it's protecting those perhaps over the rights of patients to get the care they want and need. Doctors, nurses already had the right in most cases to refuse to participate in abortions and other procedures. Here's Roger Severino. He's the head of the Office for Civil Rights. Here's how he describes it.
ROGER SEVERINO: No new law is being made here. What is being done is the provision of enforcement tools for existing conscience and religious freedom protections in health care.
CHANG: Why are they doing this now then?
KODJAK: So I think there are really two answers to that question. Number one is sort of immediate. Today is National Prayer Day, and this morning the president was able to announce these new rules at the National Prayer Breakfast.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Just today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students and faith-based charities.
KODJAK: And also the 2020 election campaign is heating up, and the president has a very strong following among religious conservatives. So this plays well with those voters who are opposed to birth control, abortions and some other types of medical care.
CHANG: Can you explain the impact you think this will have on patients? Like, say I want to get birth control. I live in a rural town, but the only doctor in town has moral or religious objections to contraception. What do I do? Do I have any legal recourse if he or she refuses?
KODJAK: Yeah, no, this rule actually gives that person - the pharmacist, the doctor - more protections to refuse care. And it isn't just the doctor. It's almost anyone who works in a health care setting. So if you cannot get birth control at your pharmacy or through your doctor's office, you may have to travel - who knows? - for hours if it's a rural area. What this rule does - it says not only do you have no recourse, but the doctor or pharmacist could have recourse themselves if their employer required them to provide that contraception.
CHANG: But this isn't just about birth control or abortion, right? What are the other health care services that this rules change could affect?
KODJAK: You know, it could go pretty far. It could extend to in vitro fertilization or other fertility treatments. It could affect end-of-life care. So imagine, like, I have a stroke, and I'm taken to a Catholic hospital. If the physicians determine that I won't recover, the hospital still could refuse to allow my family to remove life support even if I had an advanced directive, a living will that said I didn't want it. And right now religious hospitals are a major subset of the health care industry, and they're very concentrated in some areas. So in some cases, patients won't always have a choice.
CHANG: That's NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak. Thanks, Alison.
KODJAK: Thanks, Ailsa.
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