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Will Arkansas Governor Sign 'Religious Refusals' Health Care Bill?

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson

The Arkansas legislature has passed a bill allowing health care providers or insurers to deny care that conflicts with their religious beliefs, and civil rights groups say it opens the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and others.

Senate Bill 289, given final approval Thursday by Senate and earlier in the week by the House, is now with Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has not said if he plans to sign or veto it, the Associated Press reports. If he takes no action within five days from receiving the bill, it becomes law without his signature. If he vetoes it, a simple majority of legislators can override the veto.

The measure would allow medical workers, institutions, and payers to opt out of providing care to which they object on the grounds of religion or conscience, except in emergency situations.

Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, a Republican who is running for lieutenant governor, opposed a similar bill in 2017 but endorsed this one, the AP reports. Speaking to lawmakers last month, he said that among other things, doctors and other health care workers were concerned about being forced to participate in gender-confirmation procedures for transgender people, even if such procedures went against their beliefs.

Anti-LGBTQ+ groups including the Alliance Defending Freedom backed the legislation as well. “Driving out doctors, nurses, and other medical providers because of their faith means fewer health care options for patients at a time when our nation’s health care system is overstretched and experiencing a dire shortage of providers,” said a statement from Stephanie Nichols, a lawyer for the group.

Supporters of the legislation said it would allow for objections to procedures rather than refusals to serve specific populations, but LGBTQ+ and other civil rights groups said it would provide ample opportunity for discrimination just the same.

For instance, pharmacies could refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or for drugs used to prevent or treat HIV, according to a press release from the Human Rights Campaign. A transgender patient could be denied continued hormonal treatment while hospitalized for something unrelated to their gender, or a therapist could refuse to provide grief counseling to members of same-sex couples on the grounds that it was “gay marriage counseling,” in other examples cited by HRC.

“No one should be denied necessary medical care,” HRC President Alphonso David said in the release. “SB 289 prioritizes individual providers’ beliefs ahead of patient health and well-being. The Arkansas legislature understood this when they rejected a similar bill four years ago and they would be wise to do the same again this session. In the midst of a devastating and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we should be expanding access to health care and making it more affordable, not advancing bills that make it harder for LGBTQ Arkansans to receive the care they need. We strongly urge Gov. Asa Hutchinson to reject this bill and protect access to care for all Arkansans.”

The bill is also opposed by Arkansas business leaders such as the state’s Chamber of Commerce. “We position ourselves as being not open and welcoming like we’ve portrayed ourselves to be,” Randy Zook, the chamber’s president and CEO, told the AP.

American Atheists called the bill a solution in search of a problem. The group cited figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights indicating that between 2008 and 2016, only 10 complaints were filed nationwide by health care workers who said they didn’t receive accommodation for their religious beliefs. If this bill becomes law, however, it will lead to more denials of care, according to the organization.

“Governor Hutchinson should veto this deadly bill. If he does sign it into law, it will result in the deaths of Arkansans, and the blood will be on his hands,” Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, said in a press release. “Lawmakers claim this bill is about conscience. Does Governor Hutchinson really want the deaths of Arkansans on his?”

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