Senator Hammerstrom, Chair of the Senate Committee on Health Policy.
Senator Gilda Z. Jacobs, (D-Huntington Woods.)
LANSING – The Senate Health Policy Committee heard testimony Sept. 22 on a package of bills referred to as the Medical Conscientious Objector Package. The committee did not vote on the bills.
The package of bills seeks to allow doctors, insurers, health facilities and other health care providers the right to refuse treatment, coverage, or procedures to patients based on moral, ethical, or religious grounds.
The conscientious objector package was passed by the House on April 21, 2004.
Although the bills are supported most strongly by anti-abortion advocates and seek to target reproductive health and family planning services, LGBT rights advocates argue that the bills could allow providers and insurers to refuse to treat or insure LGBT people. Though the bill specifically prohibits discrimination based on the Elliott Larson Civil Rights Act, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression are not covered under the act.
The majority of those testifying opposed the measure, including medical and insurance representatives, health care providers, members of medical associations, and organizations like Planned Parenthood and the National Organization of Women.
ACLU of Michigan’s Legislative Director Shelli Weisberg and Staff Attorney for the LGBT Legal Project Jay Kaplan were also present.
On a national level, the day before the hearing the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association announced a nationwide petition against the bills. The petition allows health care providers to voice their opposition to the proposed Michigan law and other similar proposed legislation.
Matthew J. Levin, legislative director for committee member Sen. Gilda Z. Jacobs (D-Huntington Woods), does not believe the bills will get sent to the full Senate for a vote. “Based on the dialog in the testimony I would be really surprised if the bills went much further,” he said. “It didn’t seem like any senator up there on the panel was interested in supporting them.” According to Levin, if not passed by the committee, the only way to get them to the floor is to offer a motion to discharge, which he sees as unlikely.
During the hearing Romy Crawford, legislative aide to Rep. Scott Hummel (R-Dewitt), a sponsor of HB 5277 and HB 5278, told the committee that the bills were “preventative.” She also said that the bills dealt specifically with procedures, not people, an assertion that was quickly challenged by committee member Sen. Bruce Patterson (R-Canton).
“I don’t know that anybody … would see me as an advocate for special rights, gay rights and lesbian rights,” he said. “Gay and lesbian people have a right – it’s not a special right – to medical treatment and access.”
Crawford dismissed critics’ concerns that the bills would allow for discrimination against LGBT patients. “Their problem is with the Elliott Larson Civil Rights act and that’s what they should be looking at,” she said.
Jacobs, an outspoken opponent of the bills, asked Crawford why Elliott Larson was even referenced in the bills if they dealt only with procedures and not people.
According to Levin, in the last session the bills did not include Elliott Larson. Earlier versions of the bills included a list of factors that included sexual orientation. Levin believes this list was taken out and replaced with Elliott Larson, knowing that gays and lesbians would not be protected.
Committee member Sen. Virg Benero (D-Lansing) had little patience for the bills. “I see this as turning medicine on its head,” he said, adding that these bills would put the needs of care givers before the needs of patients.
“I think this is one of the wackiest ideas masquerading as public policy I’ve seen,” Benero added.
Ave Marie University Professor Richard Meyer, a strong supporter of the bills, called the issue of sexual orientation discrimination “a red herring” and advocated the elimination of Elliott Larson’s inclusion in the bill.
“If it’s unnecessary it may have unintended consequences,” he said.
“So could this package of bills,” Jacobs replied.
Dr. Earl Reisdorff of the Ingham Regional Medical Center called the bills “a cure in search of a disease.”
Lansing Area AIDS Network Director of Volunteer Services Patrick Lombardi told the committee that these bills would put patients with HIV/AIDS at greater risk, especially those living in rural areas where health care provider options are limited.
Committee member Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo), a registered doctor, expressed concerns about care being compromised by health care workers who refuse to cooperate due to religious objections, citing the Jehovah’s Witness’ objection to blood transfusions.
There was so much interest in the bills that not everyone was able to testify. Senator Hammerstrom, Chair of the Senate Committee on Health Policy, said the committee may hold another hearing. A date was not set at press time.
Deb Beechy of Williamston attended the hearings hoping to testify against the bills. Beechy, 29, said, “I was going to talk to the fact that I’m a woman, I’m a lesbian, and I have a beard.” She said she accepts that she faces harassment and discrimination in her daily life, but will not accept legalized discrimination in her health care.
According to GLMA, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia have considered similar measures this year.