Senate Dems pass controversial bill requiring hospitals to disclose services not offered

Republican opposition centered around freedom of religion
The Colorado Statesman

State Senate Democrats on Wednesday pushed through a bill that would require hospitals in Colorado to disclose to patients services that are not offered because of religious or moral beliefs, such as abortions.

The controversial Senate Bill 93, sponsored by Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, made its way through the Senate on a party-line vote of 20-14 over the objections of Republicans who believe the legislation is a an attempt at government to limit the First Amendment freedoms of religion. The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled House where it faces a much tougher test and will likely die.

Passage of SB 93 came just one day before U.S. Senate Democrats in Washington blocked an amendment that would have allowed insurers to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage to members if their employers raise religious or moral objections. Republicans had sought the amendment — sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and attached to an unrelated transportation bill — to combat a mandate in President Barack Obama’s federal health care law that requires employers to cover contraception without co-pays. The president has proposed a compromise that would require insurers to provide the contraceptive coverage without charging the employers, but that does not fix the problem for self-insured religiously affiliated institutions. The moral question still remains for those employers, which is what brought Blunt’s amendment.

But U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., passionately spoke up against the amendment on Thursday, arguing that the proposal is a waste of Congress’ time and goes against the desires of the public.

“I’ve held hundreds of town hall meetings in red parts of my state and blue parts of the state and I don’t remember a single time this issue, the issue that’s of concern with this amendment, has been raised by anybody — by anybody — in three years,” Bennet exclaimed during floor remarks.

“We sit here and wonder why Congress is stuck at an approval rating of maybe 11 percent,” the senator continued. “Maybe it’s because we’re talking about contraception in the context of a transportation bill.”

The issue addressed by Bennet can be seen as a microcosm in Colorado over the “cultural war” between government and religion. SB 93 is the perfect example of that tense battle.

The legislation would require hospitals to disclose to patients in Colorado any services that are not offered because of religious beliefs or moral convictions, and to inform patients that those services can be obtained at other hospitals. Abortions top the list, but other more routine medical procedures, such as vasectomies or tubal ligations would also fall into the category.

Carroll sees the bill as being about female reproductive rights and public safety, but she also sees it as being about protecting the rights of citizens, as well as institutions.

“Hospitals are not the only things that have constitutional rights,” she said during floor remarks on Wednesday. “I’m here because I believe the people and patients who may not share the same beliefs, and who may have a medically necessary or critical decision that is important to them, that under the status quo, they do not have 100 percent of their First Amendment religious rights under the status quo.”

The issue flared up in Colorado in the last few years with the proposed consolidation of three Denver hospitals by Kansas-based Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Healthcare System. Sisters of Charity was unsuccessful in acquiring all three hospitals, but owns Exempla St. Joseph Hospital in Denver and is a member of Exempla’s governing board, which includes St. Joseph, Exempla Lutheran in Wheat Ridge and Exempla Good Samaritan in Lafayette. The Catholic organization is still seeking ways to take full operational control of Exempla Lutheran and Exempla Good Samaritan. The charity has been criticized for attempting to end reproductive care services that violate religious and moral convictions.

Republicans say such religious-based hospitals should be allowed to deny whatever services they’d like without having to answer to government mandates.

“Of course this bill stigmatizes,” said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, of SB 93. “There is this stigma of the state thinking that this judgment is somewhat suspect. There is the stigma of the state mandating a unique disclosure unprecedented in health care that tells people what an institution decides to do because of its religious beliefs. There is the stigma that the state thinks this disclosure is so important that it has to mandate sort of a fine print.”

“Here’s the catch,” continued Mitchell. “Mandated disclosures are about bringing out unsavory facts about not letting consumers be taken advantage of.”

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, agreed with his colleague, arguing that the bill is an example of a war on religion in America.

“This does become a bill about discrimination and religious persecution because it not only tells what an institution has to do, it orders the institution to say why they’re doing it… and only if you have a religious belief or moral conviction,” said Cadman.

“If one faith is under attack in this county, all faiths are under attack in this country,” he continued.

But Sen. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, countered, pointing out that she hadn’t wanted to testify in support of the bill, but Republican opposition compelled her to speak up.

“When I hear words up here this morning — this is chilling, torturing words — I kind of recoil a little bit,” said Foster, who earlier stated that she is a “deeply religious person.”

“I support faith-based organizations, I love the practice of religion and the freedom of religion. Thank goodness I am here. But I don’t believe that it’s up to one denomination in this entire country to tell me what I can’t know or what I can’t choose,” Foster added.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com