The Department of Health and Human Services warned a Vermont medical center on Wednesday of a potential review after the agency concluded that a nurse had been compelled to participate in an abortion at the center despite her objections.
HHS told the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington that it has 30 days to comply with federal law protecting employees’ religious rights or risk a review that could threaten its federal funding.
The medical center contends the nurse’s allegations are inaccurate and that it is willing to work with HHS’ Office of Civil Rights on further supporting employees’ religious rights as well as patients’ legal rights.
“We do not discriminate against any employees for exercising their rights to opt out of procedures to which they object,” the University of Vermont Medical Center’s communications strategist, Annie Mackin, told CNN in a statement. She added that the center “has robust, formal protections” in place safeguarding the rights of employees to religious beliefs and of patients to abortions.
The nurse no longer works there, according to Mackin.
HHS’ move comes amid the department’s recent focus on health care providers’ religious and moral objections to controversial health care procedures, such as abortion. The department created a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in January 2018, which issued enforcement actions earlier this year to California and Hawaii after the states looked to compel pregnancy resource centers to refer patients for abortions.
According to the HHS’ Office of Civil Rights on Wednesday, an unnamed nurse filed a conscience and religious discrimination complaint with HHS in May 2018, alleging that the University of Vermont Medical Center had required her “to assist in an elective abortion procedure over her conscience-based objections,” according to a news release from HHS.
The medical center allegedly assigned the nurse to participate in an elective abortion when she was known to have objected to performing abortions for many years, according to the HHS release. Although she objected again, she was required to perform the procedure despite the presence of other staff, HHS said.
Alleging that the medical center “refused to conform its policies to federal conscience laws, provide all the documents requested by OCR, or produce witnesses for OCR interviews,” HHS investigated the complaint. It determined that the center was in violation of the 1973 Church Amendments, which ban private health care providers that receive federal funds from requiring employees to participate in abortions.
“The law is what the law says, and that is what we are charged with enforcing,” Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino told reporters on a call following the announcement Wednesday, later adding, “We chose this case because if there was ever a violation of the Church Amendment that needed to be enforced, it’s this one.”
He stressed that HHS’ authority did not come from a new rule proposed in May protecting health care providers from discrimination should they decline on moral grounds to participate in procedures such as abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide. The rule, which faces multiple court challenges, is slated to go into effect in November.
While private health care facilities receiving federal funds can opt to comply with federal regulations or no longer accept federal funds, Severino said, “what they cannot do is receive the federal funds and create conditions where they will be scheduling people who object to abortions to perform abortions.”
The medical center has 30 days to inform the Office of Civil Rights whether it will change its policies before the office will send the notice of violation to the HHS office that approves grants to the center, the Health Resources and Services Administration, for consideration. The Health Resources and Services Administration’s procedures, “if followed all the way, could lead to removal of federal funds,” Severino added.
The University of Vermont Medical Center pushed back on HHS’ claims, telling CNN that it heard about the agency’s notice against it from the press, despite being in contact with the Office of Civil Rights for the past nine months.
Upon first hearing of the allegations from the Office of Civil Rights, “we promptly and thoroughly investigated them and determined that they were not supported by the facts,” Mackin said, and “offered to discuss our policies and practices, and to receive OCR’s advice on how those policies and practices may be improved consistent with our obligations to our patients” up through this month.
“We nonetheless remain willing to work cooperatively with OCR to identify any ways in which we can further support our employees’ conscience and religious rights, in a manner that is consistent with high-quality patient care, and the other legal and ethical obligations we have to our patients,” Mackin added.
The University of Vermont Medical Center is the largest employer in the state, according to the US Department of Labor’s job search website.
Severino declined to specify whether the abortion in which the nurse was allegedly compelled to participate was a pre-viability procedure, saying that “this was not an emergency circumstance” and that the Church Amendments don’t make a distinction.
He also declined to specify the number of witnesses, beyond “several,” who were involved in the Office of Civil Rights’ “fully investigated” probe into the allegations, adding that “we have enough to support our findings.”