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Bill would let Nebraska doctors deny care because of personal beliefs

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Doctors, hospitals and health insurers could refuse to participate or pay for procedures or medications based on religious, moral or ethical beliefs under a bill introduced in the Nebraska Legislature on Tuesday.

LB963 was introduced by Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil along with cosponsors Sens. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, Mike Flood of Norfolk, Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, Steve Halloran of Hastings, Rita Sanders of Bellevue and Julie Slama of Sterling.

Murman said the bill is aimed at not forcing practitioners to perform procedures they don’t agree with. He mentioned abortion, sex-reassignment surgery and physician-assisted suicide as examples. The bill includes language specific to abortion, saying that a practitioner can’t be assigned to participate in the procedure unless they consent in writing.

“It’s all about religious freedom,” he said. “It’s so a person can live out their faith in what they do and won’t be compelled to go against their beliefs in what they do.”

Similar laws enshrining a “right of conscience” for health care providers exist in other states. The “Medical Ethics and Diversity Act” Murman is proposing looks similar to a law approved in Arkansas last year under the same name, and a clause in Ohio’s approved budget bill has similar aims.

Danielle Conrad, director of the ACLU of Nebraska, called the bill “breathtaking in scope, perhaps unprecedented” in her initial assessment.

“There is absolutely no question that religious liberty and religious freedom is a deeply rooted, widely shared value in our community, in our country, in our law,” she said. “But this is not that. This legislation is much broader in scope.”

She said that current federal and state laws and constitutions protect religious freedom and that current law “strikes the right balance.” Upon first read, she said she sees this as tipping the scale. And it applies an individual right to businesses.

“This is a broad indication to utilize religion, ethics or morality as a license to discriminate,” she said. She said it’s a particular concern for people who live in areas of the state that already have limited access to care, and mentioned family planning and care for transgender people as areas of concern.

Murman’s bill would apply broadly to medical professionals (including nurses, nursing home employees, pharmacists, medical researchers and psychologists), health care institutions (including hospitals, clinics, medical schools and nursing homes) and health care payers (including employers, health plans and insurance companies).

Any person or entity that fits into those broad categories would have a right not to participate — which includes performing, helping with, referring for, counseling for, admitting for the purpose of providing — or pay for any service that violates the person or entity’s “conscience.” In the case of hospitals and other businesses, “conscience” is defined as determined by reference to governing documents.

That “right of conscience” is limited to objections to a “particular health care service,” according to the bill. And the bill says that it doesn’t override requirements in federal law to provide emergency medical treatment to all patients.

More requests for federal money. Lawmakers continue to file bills with ideas for how the state should spend $1.04 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money. Bills filed Tuesday included LB961 and LB962 from Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, which would direct funding to the University of Nebraska to increase research technology capacity at the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center and toward building a facility for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Teaching, Research, and Inquiry-based Learning Center.

Arbor Day. A bill from Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln would change the day Arbor Day is observed in even years to coincide with election day.

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