Overwhelming Opposition Floods HHS Refusal Clause Proposal: 200,000+

Scott Swenson

HHS is characterizing the number of comments as "higher than average" and Rewire has obtained estimates from several organizations suggesting at 200,000 comments are in opposition. Don't forget the 325,000 petitions turned in before the rule was issued, as Americans attempt to prevent ideology from trumping medical science.

With public commenting now closed on the proposal allowing trained medical staff to deny health care service to patients in need, one thing is certain: many Americans are not happy with efforts by President Bush and Secretary Michael Leavitt to put ideology over medical science and deny patient conscience rights.

Approximately 200,000 comments have been generated by organizations opposing the proposed rule, based on an initial review of advocacy organizations by Rewire. These organizations worked to generate public comments to the Bush Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of comments received are "higher than average" according to Kevin Schweers, a spokesperson for HHS.  "A significant number on both sides were duplicative form letters" Schweers said, but could not provide specific numbers at this time. "We will take all the comments received during the notice and comment period into consideration and then determine next steps," Schweers said.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood said, “After
eight years of disastrous health care policies, it is time for this
administration to listen to the American people and change the course
of this regulation that unforgivably ignores a patient’s right to
receive the critical health care services and information she deserves.”

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By law, HHS is required to reply substantively to each of the comments and address the concerns raised. Detailed legal analysis of the proposed ruling, raising significant questions into potential violations of civil rights laws, increased federal government bureaucracy, concerns about patient rights, and many other issues were raised in lengthy letters submitted by many major medical and legal professional associations. Thirteen state attorneys general sent letters, Senators Murray and Clinton wrote a letter (PDF), and dozens of Members of Congress signed onto letters in the House and Senate that raised significant issues (PDF). Dozens of advocacy organizations also submitted lengthy letters raising numerous concerns not only about domestic health care provision, but also how the ruling would impact US global policy and grantees that work abroad.

Even though White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten urged agencies not to engage in last minute rule making in the waning days of the Bush Administration, ideologues at HHS proceeded and now must respond to the comments substantively before issuing a final ruling, or deciding not to given the overwhelming opposition.  If they proceed with a ruling, it is expected to be challenged in court.

The bulk of the 200,000 comments in opposition came from Planned Parenthood which generated more than 90,000. NARAL Pro-Choice America, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Women, The National Partnership for Women and Families, the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, the International Women’s Health Coalition, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and the National Women’s Law Center were among the organizations opposing the proposed rule surveyed by Rewire.

Prior to the issuance of the proposed rules, more than 325,000 Americans signed a petition urging Secretary Michael Leavitt not to go forward with the proposal.  Those signatures were generated by MoveOn.org and Planned Parenthood, so it is possible that there is some overlap, but because so many different organizations were involved in generating public comments, it is also likely that many of the 200,000  received during the comment period are from people other than those who signed the original petition, thus moving the number of people officially opposing this effort significantly higher.

As Rachel Walden of Our Bodies, Our Blog has been tracking, HHS did not appear to welcome the public comments that came, first on Secretary Michael Leavitt’s blog, then during the public commenting phase as they kept changing the URLs making it difficult to keep track of information.

See all of Rewire’s coverage of the HHS Refusal Clause

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