Florida Docs Can Soon Deny Patient Care Based on Personal, Religious Beliefs

Steph Weber

A controversial new Florida bill will allow physicians to opt out of performing certain services because of “sincerely held” religious, moral, or ethical beliefs.

The bill, part of a “medical freedom” legislative package signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last week, permits healthcare providers to make conscience-based objections to providing medical care and protects them from getting sued or losing their licenses. It takes effect July 1.

Healthcare providers are broadly defined to include physicians, medical students, residents, and licensed professionals like nurses, mental health providers, and emergency medical services personnel. Facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, and pharmacies are included too.

Insurers can also deny payment for treatment, but they must remove it from their annual contracts first.

Florida is one of about a dozen states that did not accept federal funding for Medicaid expansion and currently ranks 48th in healthcare access. Critics say the new law could exacerbate health disparities and lead to discrimination against certain groups of patients, including LGBTQ+ individuals and women seeking reproductive healthcare.

Psychologists could refuse to treat someone for gender dysphoria, for example. Doctors could refuse to prescribe birth control, administer childhood vaccines, or accept patients with state insurance.

Kenneth W. Goodman, PhD, professor and director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy, told Medscape Medical News the legislation could upset a longstanding precedent.

“To deny care based on unspecified and unarticulated ‘moral, ethical, or religious reasons’ opens the door to neglect, abandonment, and suspicion,” Goodman said. “It undermines two millennia of a cornerstone of medical ethics: take care of your patients — no matter who they are.”

Providers must submit written notice of an objection to their supervisor or employer and document it in the patient’s medical record. Medical students must notify their educational institution. Objecting to a service cannot result in adverse actions, such as demotion, salary reduction, or loss of privileges. Plus, objecting healthcare providers and insurers will receive immunity from civil liability.