Democrats Eye Overturning Bush Medical Rule

Thursday, January 01, 2009 at 8:30 am

Democratic policymakers vowing to overturn a controversial new Bush administration rule that could limit women’s reproductive health options have several tools at their disposal — but party leaders aren’t revealing which they favor.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (WDCpix)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (WDCpix)

The new regulation — unveiled by the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) earlier this month — expands the rights of some healthcare workers to withhold treatments and counseling services, possibly including contraception, based on their moral or religious sentiments. The White House argues that the change — known as the “right of conscience” rule — is necessary to clarify similar worker protections surrounding abortion and sterilization procedures that already exist as law. But many Democrats have joined women’s health advocates, healthcare providers and some state officials in blasting the rule as a sweeping expansion of existing statute that threatens women’s access to reproductive health services.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“Congress,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) said in a terse Dec. 18 statement, “will work with President-elect [Barack] Obama to reverse this rule.”

But party leaders aren’t saying how they’ll try to do it. Representing one option, Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) introduced legislation last month that would simply prevent HHS from implementing the new rule. Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Col.) and Louis Slaughter (D-N.Y.) have vowed to introduce similar legislation in the House next year.

“The Bush Administration continues to pursue its extreme ideology over sound public health policies,” DeGette said in a statement earlier this month.

Congress could also simply refuse to fund the new rule, which is estimated to cost $44 million.

Or they could nix it altogether by invoking an obscure law — known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA) — which allows Congress to reject White House regulations passed within 60 legislative days of Congress’s adjournment. The law would leave Democrats several months next year to kill the rule.

An advantage of the CRA route is that the vote would be exempt from the dreaded Senate filibuster, which has snuffed dozens of Democratic bills over the past two years. The disadvantage is that the measure would have to stand alone and couldn’t be buried in another bill as a rider.

Jessica Arons, director of the Center for American Progress’ Women’s Health and Rights Program, said that invoking the CRA is not as easy as it sounds, particularly when the issue relates to abortion. Conservative-leaning Democrats might not support it, she said, and party leaders might not have the political will to bring it up to begin with.

The Congressional fight could shift to the White House. The HHS under Obama could simply propose a new regulation. Obama has already criticized the rule, issuing a statement in August saying the change “complicates, rather than clarifies the law.”

“It raises troubling issues about access to basic health care for women, particularly access to contraceptives,” Obama said. “We need to restore integrity to our public health programs, not create backdoor efforts to weaken them.”

Yet the issue could be a thorny one for Obama, who ran on a platform of reaching across the aisle to Republicans. Despite his early opposition to the rule, he might not want to make an abortion-related issue one of his first battles, if only because it might threaten that message of bipartisan healing.

Health care advocates point out that crafting a new White House regulation would also be time-consuming, calling for periods of public comment that could extend the process to six months or longer. The legislative options, advocates say, could happen much more quickly.

Spokespersons in the offices of Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that discussions over how to reverse the regulation are underway, but no final decision has been made.

Plenty of laws on the books — both federal and state — already protect health care workers from having to participate in abortion and sterilization procedures based on moral or religious objections. The new rule would expand those laws by forcing any healthcare entity receiving federal dollars to attest that employees aren’t forced to assist in practices and procedures they deem to be “morally coercive or discriminatory.”

“A trend that isolates and excludes some among various religious, cultural, and ethnic groups from participating in the delivery of health care is especially troublesome,” the rule states, “when considering current and anticipated shortages of health care professionals in many medical disciplines and regions of the country.”

Yet the rule doesn’t specifically define which practices and policies would be covered, leaving many lawmakers and women’s health advocates to fear that contraception and other family-planning services would apply. Additionally, the rule will apply to anyone who “assists in the performance of a procedure,” a group defined broadly as anyone who participates in “any activity with a reasonable connection to the objectionable procedure, including referrals, training, and other arrangements for the procedure, health service, or research activity.”

“It goes well beyond doctors and nurses to include almost anyone who works in the health care sector,” said Arons of the Center for American Progress. “It allows people to withhold relevant medical information and not inform patients about all their options.”

HHS estimates the new regulation will affect roughly 572,000 health-related facilities, including hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories and medical schools. The rule was published in the Federal Register Dec. 18 and will take effect 30 days afterwards — just 48 hours before Obama takes office.

HHS did not return calls for comment.

There is also worry that the new rule will allow healthcare workers to take jobs in certain facilities – a family planning clinic, for example – for the sole purpose of withholding certain information, counseling services or treatments they find objectionable. Tait Sye, a spokesman for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, pointed out that, under the new rule, it would be difficult to identify such a saboteur.

“Your boss doesn’t know,” Sye said. “The patient doesn’t know. The hospital doesn’t know … No one knows. And it creates an enormous potential for chaos.”

Meanwhile, states aren’t waiting around for Washington lawmakers to act. In Connecticut, for example, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is considering legal action to prevent the new regulation from taking hold. Blumenthal says he’s worried that the change could prevent victims of rape from receiving emergency contraception.

“We went through a very lengthy, painstaking, contentious process to reach our statute in Connecticut which has worked well for everyone,” Blumenthal told The Associated Press earlier this month.

Attorneys general from at least a dozen other states have joined Blumenthal in their vocal condemnation of the new rule. More recently, health officials and lawmakers in New Mexico, Iowa and Colorado are also weighing in with concerns.

The right-of-conscience rule is not the only regulation to be ushered from the White House in recent weeks. Rules to ease restrictions on mountaintop mining, expand oil shale development and allow commercial fisheries to police their own polluting have all emerged from the White House in the final moments of President George W. Bush’s lame-duck term. Still, none has inspired the outcry of the “right to conscience” rule.

“On its way out the door,” DeGette said, “the Bush Administration has, once again, stubbornly and irresponsibly attacked Americans’ access to health care.”

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Congress Plans Overturning Bush Medical Rule
Pingback posted January 1, 2009 @ 9:35 am

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Hawaiian style
Comment posted January 1, 2009 @ 11:59 am

The first paragraph of the article talks about Democratic leaders. I wonder who they are referring to? Certainly it can't be Reed and Pelosi. They haven't LEAD anything successful yet.

Why is it the Republicans can pass anything they want because the Dems don't want to look bad or appear obstructive, and the Dems can't pass anything because they are afraid of the Repubs?

It seems the threat of a filibuster is sufficient to stop the Dem “leaders” from doing anything. I seem to recall not long ago the Repubs were going to change the rules on filibuster so that the Dems could not use it. That was when the Rebups controlled the Senate.

I am totally disgusted that Congress can't do what is right without politics entering the fight. And, if that is too much to ask then let the Democrats learn how to get their agenda thru Congress at least in a time when the Republicans are in TOTAL Disarray.

I don't think Reed and Pelosi deserve to keep their jobs. I want lions in charge of the Congress not wimps. I want a Congress that does what it swore to do when it took office. I want a Congress that does not wait for the President to force it to act. I want a Congess that is not afraid of a fight with the President. I want a Congress that the President thinks twice about ignoring. They are supposed to be co-equal, l want them to stop the hemorrhaging of money both budgetary and bailout. I want to KNOW that my Congress is watching my interests not their own or their political parties' interests.

Comment posted January 1, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

Wow, Hawaiian style…wrong on so many counts.

There were TONS of thing Republicans didn't do because the Democrats obstructed everything and the Republicans refused to use their power…something the Democrats have not hesitated to do in the last two years. When the Dems lose, it's on actual VOTES.

The Republicans were going to change the filibuster rules on JUDGES because the Dems weren't allowing judges to even come up for a vote, something which is utterly unconstitutional.

And if you wanted a Congress that watches spending and doesn't only look out for party interests, then you voted for the wrong people.

All you're going to see is spend, spend, spend on all the new giveaway programs designed to do only one thing…buy Democrats more votes in the NEXT election.

Skkeeze Whitlow
Comment posted January 2, 2009 @ 4:53 am

Skeeze Whitlow

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Hawaiian stylew
Comment posted January 2, 2009 @ 11:23 am


First, the main difference between Dems and Repubs is that Dems tax and spend and Repubs just spend.

Second, the last 8 years of this nation have been the worst I can remember in my long life.
It does not matter what subject you pick, politics, economy, environment, foreign policy, taxes, federal corruption, the position of the US in the world, etc., and most of these words when applied to Bush are oxymorons.

Third, no party that I know of ever threatened to suspend the filibuster other than Repubs.

Fourth, I will meet you here next year on NY Day and we will see if you can sustain your comment then.

Fifth, I have never heard a Repub yet whether the Pres, Congressman or talk show host that does not think the media, the other party, and everyone else is against them.

Monday News, 5th January, 2009 « **True Catholic**
Pingback posted January 4, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

[...] Democrats Eye Overturning Bush Medical Rule [...]

Comment posted January 5, 2009 @ 9:54 am

It seems to me that the Democrat party (now more socialist than ever) is the equivalent of the German Nazi party in the 1930's. Mr. Obama (called the Messiah) is the new Adolph Hitler (also called the Messiah), the “burdensome” unborn are the equivalent of the burdensome Jews. The unraveling of the constitutional rights for those who might protect the unborn is the equivalent of the NAZI's rounding up all the weapons from the Jews prior to Krystalnacht (sp.?). And the Freedom of Choice Act is the equivalent to Heinrich Himmler's Final Solution. I am praying that I am wrong about this scary scenario.

TUESDAY NEWS, 6th JANUARY, 2009 « **True Catholic**
Pingback posted January 5, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

[...] Democrats Eye Overturning Bush Medical Rule [...]

Comment posted January 5, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

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Comment posted January 11, 2009 @ 12:47 am

President Bush is a man of moral integrity and this shows when he signs a regulation called the “right of conscience rule” to protect health care workers who are truly interested in the health of the patient, and will withhold treatments and services involving contraception and abortion. Both of these are harmful to the health of the mother. But those who oppose this regulation refuse to take the blinders off and research the evidence.

So we are becoming a Socialist, Communist country under a government who imposes their immorality on the people and take away our rights.

Comment posted January 14, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

IIsn't it telling the way people commonly refer to “The Womb”? It's not “The Womb,” it's Nancy, its Trish, its Jessica – individual humans with pasts and futures and complex emotional and physical issues! The depersonalizing and reductivist term says it all. God is certainly big enough to recognize that there are complex social issues beyond the life of an individual fetus, even if some individuals aren't. Do you think God wants to promote an endless cycle of poverty and suffering? We promote this ugly cycle when we deny individual women the right to decide whether or not they are ready to carry a baby. We can reduce the instances of abortion by continuing to empower women to see themselves as more than objects and by educating men not to see women as beneath them. Jesus didn't force people to follow him, he just tried to set a good example. Christians need to set a good example and quit calling women “murderers” for being stuck in a no-win situation where they choose to minimize the social cycle of suffering and poverty.

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Skeeze Whitlow
Comment posted March 30, 2009 @ 2:20 am

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Skeeze Whitlow
Comment posted March 30, 2009 @ 9:20 am

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