The Division Of Conscience And Religious Freedom Vs. Basic Workplace Ethics [UPDATED]

In May, the Trump administration issued a new rule  that gives health care workers the power to refuse to provide services their religion disapproves of, such as abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide. A religious conviction isn’t even essential to trigger the rule; a matter of conscience is enough. The measure essentially revived a Bush rule that the Obama administration reversed.

It’s a bad rule, and an unethical rule, as Ethics Alarms has held before. If you can’t perform all the duties of a job, then don’t take the job. If an employee can get his or her employer to agree that he or she is exempt from certain duties, that’s freedom of contract. Fine.  The Trump rule, however, like the Bush rule before it, breaches a basic principle of the workplace, and common sense as well. It also leads inevitably to messes like this one:

The federal government has accused  the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vermont of violating  federal law by forcing a nurse to participate in an abortion despite her objections. The hospital denies it.

The nurse, who is Catholic, filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights. It  alleges, that she was misled by supervisors to believe she was assisting in a procedure scheduled after a miscarriage. “After [she] confirmed that she was, in fact, being assigned to an abortion, [her employer] refused her request that other equally qualified and available personnel take her place,” the complaint reads. She then participated in the procedure and “has been haunted by nightmares ever since.”

Now the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services has filed a notice of violation against the hospital, the  first since the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom was added to HHS in  2018. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/30/2017: The Price Is Wrong, Traveling Men The Trump Cabinet,And The Return Of “Will & Grace”

Good Morning!

1 Under pressure from President Trump, who shouldn’t have appointed him in the first place, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned  yesterday. He, along with other Trump officials, was under Congressional scrutiny for using expensive charter and military flights unnecessarily, costing taxpayers at a time when the administration is supposedly watching the budget. Under Federal Travel Regulations, officials are told to take the “most expeditious” means of transportation which “by no means should include personal use,” Chairman Trey Gowdy and ranking member Elijah Cummings had written to  letter to Price, 23 other agency heads, and the White House. Price has spent more than $400,000 on taxpayer-funded private jet travel since May.

Price’s abuses included a $17,760 round trip on a charter jet to Nashville, where the HHS Secretary stayed less than six hours, including lunch with his son. The day before he resigned and a day after the President publicly expressed displeasure over the travel abuses, Price had apologized. “Today, I will write a personal check to the U.S. Treasury for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes,” Price said in a statement, adding that he will no longer take private planes while serving as Secretary. “No exceptions.” This was deceit, however. The repayment was just $51,887.31, a fraction of the true cost to the government. That was, as Price said, the cost of  the secretary’s “seats” if had flown commercial.

Price is not the only Trump official whose travel practices and expenditures raise at least the appearance of impropriety, but if one had to be the symbolic whipping boy, Price was a great choice. He was also my choice back in January for “Trump Cabinet Appointee Most Likely To Make Money Off Of His Position.” In a post expressing disgust at Price’s appointment, I wrote,

“Last year, Price purchased shares in Zimmer Biomet, a medical device manufacturer right before he introduced  legislation that would have directly benefited the company. Price bought between $1,001 to $15,000 worth of shares in the company last March, and then, less than a week after the transaction,  introduced the HIP Act…to delay until 2018 a regulation that industry analysts believed  would significantly hurt Zimmer Biomet, one of two companies most affected by a regulation that limits payments for joint implant procedures. Not only did Price have a financial stake in the regulation he tried to stall,but after Price introduced  his bill, Zimmer Biomet’s political action committee donated to the Georgia congressman’s reelection campaign.”

2. Losing one arrogant, travel-abusing high official may not be enough. It’s an interesting problem: is it fair to make one miscreant the focus of abuses that involve many? No; it’s also not practical, and therefore not responsible, to behead a significant portion of the Executive Branch because oversight was lax and an unethical culture had been allowed to take hold. I think Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin would be an excellent and deserving candidate to join Price as metaphorical head on a pike.

Shulkin took a 10-day trip to Europe this past July, for meetings with Danish and British officials about veterans’ health issues. He treated much of the trip as a vacation, taking in a Wimbledon championship tennis match, touring Westminster Abbey and taking a cruise on the Thames with his wife, whose expenses were also paid for by you and me. The federal government paid for the commercial flights for Shulkin and his wife, and provided a per-diem reimbursement for their meals and other expenses. How did Mrs. Shulkin rank reimbursements and taxpayer-funded airfare? A VA spokesman explained that she was traveling on “approved invitational orders” and had “temporary duty” travel expenses.

In other words: “Huminahuminahumina…” Continue reading

Why Health and Human Services Nominee Price’s Smoking Gun Ethics Breaches Won’t Disqualify Him

smoking-gun

There was good news on the Trump Administration Ethics Train Wreck, still just pulling out of the station. Despite the ethically-challenged reaction fro the Trump transition team when it was revealed that Monica Crowley had plagiarized in her latest book, somebody, somewhere, persuaded the conservative radio talk-show host to resign her new White House post. Good. But as many—most?—predicted, the muck is just beginning to bubble to the surface.

CNN reports that Rep. Tom Price,Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services who will have much of the responsibility for dismantling Obamacare  without triggering a health system crash, appears to have engaged in a flagrant instance of using his position for financial gain.  Last year, Price purchased shares in Zimmer Biomet, a medical device manufacturer [Full disclosure: I have one of their artificial hip joints, setting off metal detectors at airports all over the world] right before he introduced  legislation that would have directly benefited the company.

Price bought between $1,001 to $15,000 worth of shares in the company last March, and then, less than a week after the transaction,  introduced the HIP Act (Clever!) to delay until 2018 a regulation that industry analysts believed  would significantly hurt Zimmer Biomet, one of two companies most affected by a regulation that limits payments for joint implant procedures. Not only did Price have a financial stake in the regulation he tried to stall,but after Price introduced  his bill, Zimmer Biomet’s political action committee donated to the Georgia congressman’s reelection campaign.

Merely a coincidence, I’m sure.

Price is scheduled to appear before the Senate Health Committee this week, and the Senate Finance Committee later. He should withdraw, or failing that, Trump should pull the nomination. Price’s purchase of the Zimmer Biomet shares isn’t the first time he’s used inside information (the inside information being “I’m going to propose a bill”) to buy shares in a company. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that he traded roughly $300,000 in shares over the past four years in health companies while pursuing legislation that could affect their bottom lines.

Yeccch. Continue reading