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House Committee Advances "Moral Grounds," Votes On Bills Related To Health Emergency

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Arkansas House
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An amended version of a bill that would allow healthcare providers to refuse to perform certain services on an objection of "moral grounds" advanced a House committee on Thursday.

The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee passed by a voice vote, Senate Bill 289, which allows those in the medical profession to refuse performing some medical services if they have “religious, moral or ethical” objections. This would not apply to any emergency medical services.

The committee initially failed the same bill in late February. It has since been amended.

Critics of the legislation have labeled it as discriminatory, while supporters say it only allows for the denial of services, not the denial of treating individual people.

Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, presented the bill to the committee.

"When we talk about the rights of conscious, fundamental decision-making that we all value in our personal lives, if there’s not a remedy, if there’s no solution, there’s no remedy," Smith said. "This bill provides a solution and a remedy to protect the rights of medical workers."

The amended version of the bill does allow employers to develop protocols for situations where a practitioner denies services, including one for "prompt patient access to medical records to facilitate transfer."

Two people spoke against the bill. Mike Hernandez with the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators expressed concerns over what this could mean for councilors, nurses, as well as social workers who work in schools and the students who seek care.

The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.

PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY BILLS

The House Public Health Welfare and Labor Committee also voted on several bills that concern the COVID-19 pandemic, and, in particular, what powers the legislature has over public health emergencies.

A bill that would return fines collected by state agencies from COVID-19 violations will head to the full House after passing the House committee. As part of Senate Bill 301, any fines collected from businesses that violated “rules, orders, or directives” set to mitigate or reduce the spread of the coronavirus would be returned. The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee advanced it Thursday by a voice vote.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, who is the Senate sponsor of the bill, has called it a “statement” of the lack of legislative input and involvement over actions taken by the state to address the pandemic. He spoke about the bill to the House Committee.

“Now, I understand the Emergency Act well. And I think there’s a place for emergency action by the executive branch, but at some point that ends,” Sullivan said.

Doralee Chandler, director of the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Division, who spoke against the bill earlier in a Senate committee, again told members she was against the returning of fines because of the message it would send to both businesses who did not follow the state’s health directives and businesses that did.

The bill now goes to the full House for a vote. 

The committee also advanced proposed legislation that gives more power to state legislators concerning statewide-issued emergencies. By a voice vote, with no dissenting votes heard, the committee advanced Senate Bill 379.

The legislation makes numerous changes to the process of enacting emergency declarations in the state. Some of those changes include allowing the General Assembly to terminate a state emergency, even a public health state of emergency, by passing a concurrent resolution as well as allowing the Legislative Council to deny a request from the Governor to renew a state emergency after a 60-day period.

According to the bill, if the legislature does pass a concurrent resolution that ends a state of emergency, it will end on the day the original order was set to expire "unless the concurrent resolution provides for an earlier date of termination."

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, presented the bill to the committee saying it is in no way a condemnation of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's actions concerning the pandemic. 

"What we seek to do with this bill is to empower the legislature when there is an emergency declaration by the governor, giving the legislature the power to terminate, giving the legislature power over executive orders, giving the legislature power over determinations and directives issued by the Department of Health," Gazaway said.

The bill now goes to the House for a final vote. If passed, it then goes to Hutchinson.

One bill the House Public Health Welfare and Labor committee did not vote to advance was a resolution that would have ended the current public health emergency in Arkansas issued by the governor. The committee voted 8-7 on House Concurrent Resolution 1003, which was ultimately not enough yes votes to pass.

If it had been approved, the resolution would have on the legislative side ended the current health emergency that Hutchinson placed the state under in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, questioned the bill's sponsor Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, about the bill, saying the pandemic was still impacting the state.

“As we vaccinate more and more of the population, I think I’m in a whole lot more favor of ending the emergency and moving on to normal life. But until that part reaches, are you open at least to a timeframe here? If the Health Department could testify that we’d have 66% of people vaccinated by this date? Or are you just [wanting a] dead cutoff, right now?” Wardlaw said.

Gonzales said the legislature would not have the ability to end the emergency on a specific date in the future, saying it would only have the power to end the resolution.

Some representatives voiced concerns on what ending the emergency would mean for the temporary telemedicine rules that are in place now, but would vanish if the emergency ended before the legislature could vote to make those temporary rules permanent. Others voiced support for ending the emergency.

Though the bill initially passed on a voice vote, a roll call vote revealed there were not enough votes to move it forward.

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