An Arkansas House committee on Thursday (Feb. 25) voted down a bill that would allow medical providers to refuse to provide services that violate their conscience and also advanced a bill that would allow hospital and long-term care patients to have a loved one present with them in the facility.
The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee voted 8-10 against Senate Bill 289, the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton. Hammer said later Thursday that he will try to run the bill later and is considering amendments.
The bill would allow medical practitioners, healthcare institutions, and health care payers to refuse to participate in health care services including examinations, therapy, drug dispensation, and other services. Religious institutions also would have the right to make employment, staffing, contracting and admitting privilege decisions consistent with their beliefs.
The right to refuse a service would not apply to emergency care.
Supporters of the bill included Dr. Greg Bledsoe, the state’s surgeon general and an announced candidate for lieutenant governor. Speaking for himself and not for the governor, who is neutral on the bill, Bledsoe told lawmakers that he had opposed a similar bill in 2017. But since then, health care has become more politicized, and medical providers could be coerced to perform procedures that violate their conscience.
He said the bill is focused on procedures rather than groups of people.
Stephanie Nichols, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which supports the bill, said the law could not be targeted toward a patient and the way they live their life. She said similar laws in Illinois and Mississippi have resulted in few legal actions.
But Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Bethesda, a committee member who supervises a urology clinic, asked what would happen if one of her nurses refused to treat male genitalia because of her beliefs. Would Gray have to hire another nurse? She voted against the bill.
Several individuals spoke against the bill including former Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck, a Health Policy Board member with the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, who said the bill would erode patients’ rights by not informing them of the reasons for the refusal. Patients would not have the ability to determine if they were discriminated against. Dr. Tom Vanhook, an emergency physician, said “service” is too broad a term and the bill could potentially allow a nursing home nurse not to send a dying patient to the hospital. Randy Zook, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer, said the bill alters the relationship between employers and employees and said Walmart and Tyson Foods are opposed.
Meanwhile, the committee advanced House Bill 1061, the No Patient Left Alone Act, by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley. The bill would allow patients to have a loved one present with them at a health care facility, including a hospital, healthcare office, long-term care facility or hospice facility.
Jodiane Tritt with the Arkansas Hospital Association sat beside Mayberry as she presented the bill. Mayberry said the bill has the support of Rachel Bunch with the Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes.
In other business, the committee advanced House Bill 1488 by Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, which would codify an executive order by Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowing employees to receive worker’s compensation benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The act is retroactive to March 11, 2020, and remains in effect for claims filed resulting from the pandemic until May 1, 2023.
The committee also advanced House Bill 1521 by Rep. Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville, which would codify an executive order providing health care providers legal immunity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The immunity would not apply to acts or omissions that are willful, reckless or involve intentional misconduct. The immunity would expire on May 1, 2023, unless extended by the Legislature.