Gay rights flag of Ohio and a man's face

The Ohio Senate Finance Committee last week added a clause to the proposed 2022-2023 state budget which would give any “medical practitioner, health care institution, or healthcare payer” the “freedom” to decline services if it violates their moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.”

SC3909, or the “Medical Practitioner Conscience Clause,” would make it legal to discriminate based on any reason that would violate a doctor or health care provider’s “conscience.” The clause would protect discriminatory practices by health care workers and providers from being “civilly, criminally, or administratively liable.”

The clause goes further, not only protecting medical discrimination but potentially rewarding practitioners who deny healthcare because it breaches their “morals.” If a healthcare provider or practitioner is taken to court for their discriminatory practices, the clause states a court “shall award threefold the actual damages sustained and reasonable costs and attorney’s fees” and if they were fired the court would order them to be reinstated.

The clause will likely affect the LGTBQ+ community the most – those who could be denied any coverage or treatment based simply on their identity. Because the clause includes not only religious beliefs as a justification for denying healthcare but also moral and ethical beliefs, the clause would legalize discrimination for essentially any reason.

The Republican-majority Ohio Senate passed the 2022-2023 state budget with the added “Medical Practitioner Conscience Clause” on June 9th and the bill is currently back in the Ohio House. The clause was not in the state budget when the House (also Republican-controlled) passed their version back in April. The state’s fiscal year starts July 1st so the two-year budget must be passed by the end of June.

Sneaking controversial amendments or clauses into the budget at the last second is common so as to avoid public outcry and debate.

“We are seeing a lot of bills being snuck in through the Ohio legislature that are discriminatory and dangerous. A lot, and they know exactly what they’re doing,” Columbus LGBTQ+ activist Erick Bellomy told the Free Press.“The state of Ohio is taking ten steps back when it comes to protecting the lives of LGBTQI+ folks. Our community already has limited access to care across all fronts, both in the primary care field and the behavioral health field.”

Bellomy believes the clause is a greater threat to Ohio’s trans community, just as some parts of society are finally beginning to accept their chosen identity. According to a 2015 study by NPR and Harvard, transgender Americans are three times more likely to be unemployed and therefore uninsured. NPR reported that 31% of transgender Americans say they lack regular access to health care even without sweeping discriminatory laws – 22% of transgender people said they avoided doctors or health care for fear of being discriminated against.

“This bill would only make it worse for folks to get the care that they need, particularly those who are in the trans community who need care continuously throughout the year,” said Bellomy. “The LGBTQI community has made leaps and strides to pass bills that protect us while our legislators in the Ohio House and Senate try to take those protections away from us. This bill needs gutted from the Ohio budget and should not be added to it in any way, shape or form, and those who sponsor and voted for this should be ashamed of themselves.”

The organization Equality Ohio says the bill “threatens the lives of LGBTQ+ people across the state, especially those in rural areas, which often only have one hospital or specialty doctor for an entire county.”

The Facebook page Trans Ohio pointed out that “this amendment would essentially give free reign to anyone in the healthcare field to deny services to LGBTQ+ people by simply claiming that doing so would violate their religious beliefs.”

If the state’s budget were to include the discriminatory conscience clause it would worsen a healthcare system that’s already far behind the rest of the developed world.

In 2019, before the pandemic, there were 744,000 uninsured Ohioans, with almost 30% of those being Hispanic and 16% black. Medical debt is also a huge problem in the state, with almost 25%of Ohioans having unpaid medical bills. Since over half of insured Ohioans rely on insurance through their employer, it’s likely the economic impact of the pandemic puts the number of uninsured much higher today.

While other countries’ governments provide healthcare to all their citizens, the US continues to sustain a model more favorable to private healthcare providers. In 2019, while 744,000 Ohioans were uninsured and thousands more in medical debt, the non-profit OhioHealth boasted a revenue of $4.3 billion.

The article reporting that revenue’s headline states, “OhioHealth could operate more than a year with no revenue because of $4.8B nest egg.” The salary for the CEO of OhioHealth is $2.9 million with five executives and officials under him making more than $1 million annually.

While Ohioans continue to suffer from this private healthcare system, those who are most vulnerable continue to be most affected. The “Medical Practitioner Conscience Clause” would legalize medical discrimination and make an already unequal healthcare system even worse for those who need it the most.