TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today joined a multi-state lawsuit that seeks to stop the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from implementing a so-called “conscience protection” (or “refusal-of-care”) rule that would allow health care institutions to deny medically necessary care to patients based on “religious, moral, ethical or other reasons.”
New Jersey received $11.8 billion in federal health care funding last fiscal year – including money to support children’s healthcare and wellness for older adults, as well as disease prevention, public health programs, opioid addiction treatment and federally-qualified health centers.
Under the HHS rule – published today – all of New Jersey’s annual federal healthcare funding could be terminated if HHS determines the State has failed to comply with the rule’s requirements. The rule could also conflict with New Jersey laws that require the provision of medically necessary health care, and that balance respect for religious freedom with the rights of patients.
“This refusal-of-care rule represents an unprecedented and unlawful overreach by the federal government, and we’re proud to stand against it,” said Attorney General Grewal. “New Jersey will not be strong-armed into accepting a federal rule that is unconstitutional, morally wrong and potentially harmful to some of our most vulnerable populations.”
“Our state already has a framework of laws that carefully balance respect for religious freedom with the rights of patients to access health care,” Attorney General Grewal said. “This rule could leave us unable to enforce those laws, and we don’t intend to let that happen.”
Filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, today’s lawsuit alleges that the proposed HHS rule extends far beyond the existing federal health care statutes it purports to enforce, and conflicts with existing federal laws concerning emergency health care, religious accommodations, and comprehensive family planning services.
In addition, the complaint claims violations of the federal Administrative Procedures Act, as well as both the Establishment Clause and the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit asserts that “communities of color and other vulnerable populations will bear a disproportionate burden of the harms” caused by the refusal-of-care rule’s implementation.
“Patients reliant on federal funding for the provision of health care are disproportionately non-white compared to the overall population,” the complaint notes.
In addition, the complaint asserts that “women and LGBTQ individuals who are already stigmatized in obtaining access to health care will be further hindered in obtaining the lawful medical services they need.”
The proposed rule at issue was put forth by HHS’s Office of Civil Rights, which historically has protected patients from unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, disability, age or sex in the provision of medical care.
Today’s lawsuit contends that, in essence, the HHS rule threatens to upend the delicate balancing of patients’ rights to care with conscience protections achieved by states like New Jersey. Instead, the HHS rule simply favors the right of doctors and health care providers to discriminate against patients.
Among other issues, the complaint asserts concerns about the rule’s potential to conflict with state laws regarding the provision of emergency health care — including laws addressing the treatment of sexual assault victims, and the requirement to provide information regarding emergency contraception. (New Jersey has such a law.)
The complaint also raises concerns about potential conflict with state laws prohibiting the abandonment — or medically inadequate treatment of – patients by healthcare providers exercising their “conscience” rights under the rule. (New Jersey law requires an “appropriate, respectful and timely transfer of care” in such instances, and requires that “the patient is not abandoned or treated disrespectfully.”)
A total of 23 states and other jurisdictions are party to today’s lawsuit, which is led by New York. In addition to New Jersey, parties to the lawsuit include Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin. Also joining the lawsuit are the City of New York, the City of Chicago, and Cook County, Illinois.