Michigan Democrats, Michigan Republicans — May 23, 2013 at 10:31 am

Making the voice of the people heard on the ‘Religious Liberty & Conscience Protection Act’


More than 550 people signed the petition opposing SB 136.

This week, opponents of Senate Bill 136 — the “Religious Liberty & Conscience Protection Act” — met with State Senator Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor). I was at the meeting, where we presented a petition for delivery to the Michigan Senate and learned even more about this troubling legislation from Sen. Warren.

As I’ve written here before, SB 136 would let healthcare providers, facilities and insurers refuse to provide or cover “objectionable” healthcare services on religious or moral grounds. But it offers no protection for patients when it comes to making their own care decisions.

Sen. Warren has been fighting this legislation since it was in the Senate Committee on Health Policy, where she tried unsuccessfully to introduce amendments that would better protect and inform patients. Here’s what she said during our meeting.

If this bill is passed, it would be the broadest conscience law in the country. It would be institutionalizing discrimination by entities that take state funds to serve all people. These funds are to be used to serve the public, but that means serving all people of all faiths and lifestyles, not just the people these institutions choose to serve.

One of the amendments Sen. Warren proposed would have required healthcare providers, facilities and insurers to post notice of services they would not provide or cover. As she pointed out during our meeting, the public has a right to know. But there isn’t a single provision in SB 136 that considers the rights or beliefs of patients.

That’s one of the primary reasons Sara Cederberg created the petition opposing SB 136.

SB 136 was first brought to my attention right here on Eclectablog, and the minute I read the language, I was incensed. Who in their right mind would produce legislation that puts a patient’s needs last? Freedom for doctors and healthcare facilities to admit patients and then refuse care over a “moral objection”? As a woman who made the difficult choice to get an abortion under even more difficult circumstances, I can’t even imagine going to a facility and then being told, ‘Sorry. I just can’t go through with this based on my beliefs.’

Although much of the attention surrounding SB 136 has involved abortion and reproductive rights, its implications are wide-ranging. It could potentially prevent people of all ages, from all walks of life, from getting healthcare services they need or request — from assisted fertility treatment to the removal of a feeding tube at the end of life.

This legislation is sweeping in the protections it offers for any individual, facility or organization that wants to opt out of providing care or coverage on religious or moral grounds. A previous version of the bill that passed the state Senate but was never taken up in the House only addressed individual objections, not institutional ones. That’s a serious concern for patients and employers, says Sen. Warren.

We have small towns in Michigan where the smaller hospitals have been gobbled up by larger faith-based entities. Whatever the faith, it severely limits patients’ access to care — especially in small towns where there’s already a lack of providers.

But it’s equally problematic for employers. If you have a person of one faith who refuses to provide certain services and a person of another faith who refuses to provide other services, how do you handle all the various objections when you’re trying to schedule people to deliver care? It’s something employers are concerned about.

What’s more, says Sen. Warren, SB 136 not only lets healthcare providers and related entities exercise objections. It would even permit someone who handles billing administration to say, “I don’t agree with that service and I won’t process that payment.”

Holly Wexler, who presented the petition to Sen. Warren, is more opposed to the legislation than ever after learning that.

Whatever happened to the Hippocratic Oath? And why are insurers and billing administrators being given the power to make decisions about the care or coverage someone can receive? Who are any of these people to pass judgement on others?

Sen. Warren says it’s not clear when SB 136 will come to the Senate Floor for a vote, but in the meantime conversations are continuing with hospital systems, employers, medical schools and others in the healthcare arena — many of which oppose SB 136, too.

She was thrilled to see 656 signatures on the petition to date. The majority were from Michigan residents but 39 other states and five countries outside the United States were also represented, demonstrating the widespread concern about such overreaching legislation.

Robert McCann, communications director for the Michigan Senate Democratic Caucus, says the Senate Democrats share the same concerns about SB 136 as countless people from across the state.

It really opens a Pandora’s box of frightening scenarios in which people are turned away from the medical care they urgently need. While the rest of the country is focused on expanding access to healthcare, Michigan Republicans seem to be on a one-state crusade to make our healthcare system costlier and less accessible to the people who need it most.

Sen. Warren said she and many others in the Michigan legislature will “continue to fight” SB 136 — and you can do the same. It’s not too late to sign the petition, so additional signatures can be delivered to Sen. Warren to share with her colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

[Photos by Amy Lynn Smith]