‘CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION’: Lawmakers consider controversial health care proposal

REGION – A proposal that would allow health care providers to refuse to perform sensitive or controversial medical procedures and services is drawing criticism from professionals and advocacy groups.

The bill would allow employees such as nurses, pharmacists or lab technicians to make a “conscientious objection” to participate based on professional, ethical, moral or religious grounds. They would have to state their objection beforehand and would not be subject to any penalties or retaliation, including firing or demotion.

Sen. Bill Schuette, R-Midland, drafted the proposal at the request of health professionals in his district, according to Phil Ginotti, Schuette’s aide.

Mercy Hospital in Cadillac already has a policy addressing the issue, according to Bob Doering, director of mission services and chair of the ethics committee for the hospital.

“We try to deal with these issues before a worker is hired or well before the medical procedure actually takes place,” he said. “But it doesn’t come up too often, if at all.”

While many health care professionals support the legislation, others predict ethical problems.

“What if a pharmacist is Catholic and doesn’t believe in birth control or oral contraceptives? Then they can refuse to fill the prescription,” said Judy Karandjeff, public affairs director of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Michigan. “And what if there’s only one pharmacist or pharmacy in the community?”

Ginotti claimed the legislation was drafted to deal with larger issues, such as the dispensing of RU 486 if it is approved by the federal government. RU 486 is labeled the “abortion pill” because it causes the shedding of the uterus lining after conception.

Len Fleck, a professor of philosophy and medical ethics at Michigan State University, said he’s concerned about the proposal.

“There has to be a reasonable and definable boundary of a conscientious objection because certain objections can be masquerading as deep religious convictions,” he said. “What if a homophobic refuses to draw blood because of a religious belief?”

Doering doesn’t foresee this as a problem at Mercy Hospital. “We follow the ethical and religious standards set by the Catholic Bishops and we treat everyone with personal dignity no matter what their values.”

The bill is still in the early stages of review in the Senate Health Policy Committee, and northern Michigan health care agencies haven’t taken a formal position on it.

“Because it is such a new proposal, we haven’t had a chance to look at it in depth or formalize a stance on it,” said Elizabeth Gertz, executive director of the North Central Council of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

Munson Healthcare is monitoring the legislation, said Jay Zrinec, vice president of public affairs.

Jeff Wendling, president of Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey says, “We’ve always had an internal policy allowing staff to opt out for ethical reasons if it doesn’t affect the care of the patient, but we don’t allow it if it will put the patient at risk.”

He went on to say, “It doesn’t happen all that often but it does arise from time to time.”

He mentioned that they would probably see it come up more often if they performed abortions.

Robert Marquardt, president and CEO of Memorial Medical Center of West Michigan in Ludington, said a proposal like this would make it more difficult to run a hospital in Michigan.

“We’re tightly staffed already,” Marquardt said. “If a patient needs certain services and staff members refuse to do it, it might result in the patient not receiving needed services.”

Marquardt isn’t concerned about the physicians, who already have a means of choosing which services to provide. “My concern would be for hospital employees who refuse to follow through with the doctor’s instructions,” he said.

Ginotti said the bill still needs some revisions, including exemptions for emergencies, but he claims it will have enough support to pass. BIZNEWS