HHS Religious Freedom Division draws praise, alarm in Minnesota

Acting U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan.
Acting U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan speaks during a daily news briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House November 30, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong | Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Thursday promised vigorous enforcement of broad legal protections to shield health care providers opposed to abortion, gender reassignment and other controversial procedures.

Trump administration officials portray their new effort as a way to protect health care providers from compromising their moral or religious convictions.

"For too long, too many health care practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and moral convictions, leading many of them to wonder what future they have in our medical system," said acting secretary Eric Hargan.

The Associated Press reports Office of Civil Rights director Roger Severino said from 2008 to Nov. 2016, HHS received 10 such complaints. Since President Trump won election, the office has received 34 new complaints.

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Twila Brase, head of the Minnesota-based, national patient-doctor rights group, Citizens' Council for Health Freedom, said establishing the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division is a good move by the administration.

"I think it is right and good to give health care workers a freedom of conscience protection," she said.

Brase says without a moral or religious opt out, health care workers must choose between leaving their profession or trampling on their core beliefs.

"There are some individuals who, for instance, would, you know, be opposed to participation in an abortion or they would be opposed to sterilizing an individual," Base said.

25-year-old Ryne Zuzinec sees it differently.

"To me it sounds like state-sanctioned discrimination in my mind," he said.

Zuzinec works in health care. He is gay and says he's troubled by the prospect that someone could refuse to provide him care just because of his sexuality.

Supporters of the moral or religious care objection say such an opt out would not deny people care. They maintain there is an abundance of providers who would step in.

Zuzinec said he's not confident of that.

"Thankfully I live in the metro area which is pretty open about LGBT issues, but if I were to move somewhere up north or down south somewhere, I mean, it is something I worry about," he said.

The Minnesota Nurses Association has come out against the new Health and Human Service opt out pathway.

Registered nurse and MNA policy adviser Carrie Mortrud said she doubts there is pent up demand among providers to deny care they object to. She also says even if a provider personally objects to something, integral to the health care profession is the tenet that they are to leave their personal beliefs at the door of their health care facility.

"I took a code of ethics and follow that in my nursing care and all nurses do. And so it doesn't allow for freedom for me to discriminate against someone, maybe because they have pink hair, or because they remind me of someone I didn't like. I don't get to do that," she said.

Although the new Health and Human Services division has been created, it's unclear exactly how it will approach its mission. And, like many other Trump administration moves, the new division and its work are expected to face legal challenges.