The right-wing stamp on the Senate Public Health Committee was in evidence today.
It gave approval to a couple of bills from Baptist chaplain Sen. Kim Hammer.
SB 289 says any medical practitioner, institution or health cost payer has the right not to participate in a healthcare service that violates their conscience. Stephanie Nichols, a Jonesboro lawyer for an organization that uses religion as a pretext to prohibit government support of things it dislikes, said there was an “urgency” to the bill because Arkansas Children’s Hospital had a gender transition clinic and she feared the Biden administration would support Medicaid payment for such services.
No one spoke against the bill, but a Health Department spokesman said the agency had concerns about how far the bill might go in affecting, for example, county health units with a small number of employees. Some might oppose vaccinations. Others might resist providing nutritional services to unwed mothers because of moral objections. He asked if the Health Department could be amended out of the bill. Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, chair of the committee, agreed to Hammer’s suggestion that this could be attempted in the House and then come back to the Senate with an amendment if the House decides it’s necessary.
The bill provides treble damages for someone terminated for such decisions, plus costs and attorney fees. The bill enjoys support, one social media commenter noted today, from people who’d like to cap damages for medical negligence in a death at $250,000.
Rep. Brandt Smith, a co-sponsor, said he’d been told by Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, son of the chair of the committee, that he could relate that Bledsoe, a candidate for lieutenant governor, supported the bill as an individual.
The committee also endorsed SB254 by Hammer which says that state regulators who enter a restaurant or other business and observe a violation of masking or other health guidelines could not hold the business liable, only the customer. The Health Department said it was concerned that this could hamper enforcement. It said the practice had always been to “educate” first, rather than enforce, and to act against a business only after multiple violations and then in a relatively small number of cases. (67 out of 4,300 salons, in every case a mutliple offender.)
The department was also concerned the law could cause legal action over past actions by the department because the bill says the enforcement has been unfair in the past. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who has led a lawsuit over pandemic health restrictions imposed by the governor, said the agency could just fix that by refunding any fines, but the Health Department lawyer, Matt Gilmore, said that would amount to an admission of guilt. Hammer emphasized the business could still enforce rules on customers and employees.
The Senate committee is stacked with ultra-conservative members and no opposition vote was heard to either bill.