Michigan bill would require health facilities to adhere to medical standards of care


House Bill 5674 is grounded in medical science and puts patient safety above religious ideology.

A medical emergency is a dire situation, no matter who you are or what you believe. But when a patient shows up in the emergency room of a Catholic-affiliated hospital, she doesn’t know whether she’ll be treated based on established medical standards of care or the religious beliefs of the hospital and staff. This can have life-threatening consequences, as I’ve written about here for more than a year

Catholic health systems are governed by religious directives written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. These directives forbid Catholic-affiliated facilities to provide abortion care, reproductive healthcare and other services based strictly on religious beliefs — not medical standards.

No one is trying to interfere with the religious liberty of individuals, but when your job is to provide healthcare services, faith should never take priority over protecting someone’s health or life. This is especially serious considering that one in six hospital beds in the United States is part of a Catholic health system. In some areas, Catholic-affiliated facilities are literally the only option for emergency care within a reasonable distance. What’s more, Catholic health systems don’t always tell patients about the services they will or won’t provide — even in an emergency.

To make sure patients receive appropriate care at every hospital, Democrats in the Michigan House have introduced House Bill 5674, which amends Michigan’s public health code to require healthcare professionals to provide emergency medical care according to medical standards of care — not religious beliefs.

To be very clear: HB 5674 would not require any healthcare professional to perform an elective abortion. But it would require providers and facilities to provide that service and other reproductive and medical care in an emergency.

In a number of recent cases, women have been turned away from Catholic-affiliated hospitals when they needed emergency care. These women, like Tamesha Means, were not given any information about their condition or the fact that they should seek care elsewhere — something that may not even be possible when time is of the essence. In other cases, like Jessica Mann’s, women were denied care, forcing them to undergo an additional procedure that adds risk, cost and recovery time to their necessary care. In Mann’s case, a Catholic hospital administrator overruled the advice of her doctor.

State Representative Sam Singh, the lead sponsor of HB 5674 — which has numerous co-sponsors — has this to say about the legislation:

The incidents that have surfaced of women being refused life-saving reproductive health services due to the administrative policies implemented by religiously-affiliated health institutions is unacceptable. This bill is an important step towards ensuring women are receiving accessible and quality reproductive care, while physicians are given the opportunity to provide the best possible care to their patients without interference. Women in our state deserve access to reproductive care in any situation, but particularly in circumstances where there are pregnancy complications that could lead to life-threatening health issues.

Merissa Kovach, field organizer at the ACLU of Michigan, says the legislation “creates a balancing act that requires women to be admitted for emergency care and requires the hospital to follow its obligation to give women the care they need,” rather than compelling a hospital to not follow religious directives.

“The bill ensures that women receive information about their health condition and that no woman is turned away from a hospital if her life or health is in jeopardy,” Kovach says. “Had this been law when Tamesha Means walked into the hospital, she would not have been turned away and she would have been given the information she needed on the status of her health — and she would have been protected by the law.”

The bill also protects individual healthcare providers who want to provide the best medical care possible, rather than abiding by potentially dangerous religious directives. In the case of Jessica Mann, Kovach says, her doctor would have been protected had he performed the tubal ligation procedure necessary to protect Mann’s health over the hospital’s objections to the sterilization procedure.

In addition, the bill requires timely referrals to another provider after emergency treatment is complete, to make sure patients receive adequate follow-up treatment.

A notable aspect of HB 5674 is the fact that it’s grounded in the principles of quality medical care — standards established and accepted by healthcare professionals. For example, every patient at any facility has a right to “informed consent,” which means being given all the pertinent information about their health and any procedure that might be performed. If you’ve ever signed a form that says you understand the potential risks of a medical procedure, that’s informed consent. Getting informed consent from patients is required by every healthcare facility, but Catholic-affiliated hospitals often deny patients that right. Tamesha Means was never told she’d need an emergency abortion to protect her health once she began miscarrying, and these violations of patients’ rights happen frequently at Catholic-affiliated facilities.

HB 5674 also clearly states that healthcare decisions should be made based on “medically accurate information” — and defines exactly what that means:

(c) “Medically accurate information” means information that is any of the following:
(i) Verified or supported by the weight of peer-reviewed medical research conducted in compliance with accepted scientific methods.
(ii) Recognized as correct and objective by leading medical organizations with relevant expertise.
(iii) Recommended and affirmed in the medical practice guidelines of a nationally recognized accrediting organization.

“We’re happy about that,” Kovach says. “We like to think of it as good policy when we allow the medical community to determine what medical policy is appropriate.”

HB 5674 has been assigned to the House Committee on Regulatory Reform. No meeting date has been set yet but we will continue following this important legislation.

In the meantime, the ACLU continues to hold Catholic health systems nationwide accountable, and is demanding federal oversight to ensure that all hospitals provide the emergency care required by law — regardless of religious affiliation. Sign the petition HERE.

[Image credit: Parentingupstream via Pixabay.]