Arkansas has passed a hate-filled, anti-LGBT+ healthcare bill that would allow doctors and EMTs to refuse to treat patients if they’re trans or because of their sexuality. It is now on the desk of Arkansas‘ governor, waiting to be signed into law.
SB 289, also known as the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, would give medical and healthcare professionals the ability to refuse treatment to someone because of the worker’s “religious, moral or ethical beliefs”.
The bill also would allow hospitals and insurance providers to decline to provide services that violate their conscience. The legislation broadly defines a “healthcare institution” as any public or private business that provides healthcare services including clinics, pharmacies, medical training facilities and nursing homes.
Human rights activists say the measure would allow LGBT+ patients to be turned away because of an individual’s personal beliefs.
The bill was passed by the Arkansas state legislature last week and now awaits the signature of governor Asa Hutchinson before it can go into law. It’s unclear whether Hutchinson supports the bill. He opposed a similar bill in 2017 but said last month that the recent proposal addresses an “important concern by the public and medical community”, according to the Associated Press.
But the state has been cracking down on LGBT+ rights. Hutchinson just signed legislation banning trans women and girls from competing in school sports consistent with their gender identity, making Arkansas the second state to approve such a law this year.
In a press conference on Tuesday (22 March), Hutchinson declined to say whether he would sign the bill, according to Newsweek. But he said the bill meant healthcare professionals and providers “can decline to do a particular procedure”, but “you cannot decline to treat a certain category of persons”.
The bill has been backed by Arkansas surgeon general Great Bledsoe. He argued the bill is just “procedure-based” to allow medical professionals to opt-out of certain procedures without allowing providers to discriminate against patients.
“If a surgeon, for instance, does gallbladder surgeries, the surgeon would have to do gallbladder surgery on every group regardless,” Bledsoe said.
But Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said SB 289 “prioritises individual providers’ beliefs ahead of patient health and wellbeing”, and he called on Hutchinson to reject the bill to protect access to healthcare for all in Arkansas, regardless of whether they’re trans or gay.
“In the midst of a devastating and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we should be expanding access to healthcare and making it more affordable, not advancing bills that make it harder for LGBTQ Arkansans to receive the care they need,” David said.
The bill was also opposed by the National Association of Social Workers, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the American College of Emergency Physicians.
The Arkansas Chamber of Commerce said during a recent testimony that employers like Walmart and Tyson Foods — both of which are based in the state — find the law “profoundly disturbing”. According to a Chamber of Commerce official, both businesses said the bill could affect their ability to recruit and keep a diverse workforce in the state.
Holly Dickson, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas, said the bill is “dangerously broad” and encompasses “any kind of care that someone might object to on moral or religious grounds”.
“Making it easier to deny people healthcare isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous,” Dickson said. “That’s why medical organisations all oppose such sweeping exemptions that allow providers to refuse care without regard to the needs of patients.”