On October 9, 2015, the state of California adopted the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency Act (the “FACT act”). The FACT act requires pregnancy resource centers that fall under the state’s definition of “licensed covered facilities” to post notices pronouncing that the state provides free, or low-cost, family planning services and abortion. The act also requires pregnancy centers that fall under its definition of “unlicensed covered facilities” to post notices in ads and other community communications.

A violation of the FACT act comes with the threat of civil fines of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for each infraction thereafter.

Recently, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that California violated federal conscience protection laws, specifically the Weldon and Coats-Snowe amendments, by using the FACT act to discriminate against pregnancy resource centers who refused to post the notices due to religious reasons.

The OCR opened an investigation after receiving complaints that had been filed by Sacramento Life Center, LivingWell Medical Clinic, Pregnancy Center of the North Coast, and Confidence Pregnancy Center alleging that the local government was attempting to impose fines, and additional punitive measures, for refusing to post notices referring patients for abortion.

This practice of levying consequences on organizations that refused to adhere to the state’s preferred message acts in direct contradiction to the Weldon and Coats-Snowe amendments. These amendments specifically pertain to an organization’s right to refuse to take part in, or refer to, procedures that they find morally questionable.

Almost a year ago, the OCR established the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division as a means to safeguard religious beliefs from forcibly being compromised. In the year since the conscience and religious freedom division was put in motion, there had been no known violations. This infraction by the state of California has been logged as the first.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, a federal district court urged California not to enforce FACT against any pregnancy centers that refused to post the required notices. While the OCR closed the complaint as favorably resolved for the complainants and any other similarly affected parties, it should be noted that if California violates the terms of the injunction again, they will be subject to the OCR re-opening the complaint and taking further action.

Roger Severino, director of OCR, stated, “We are pleased that the Supreme Court blocked California’s blatant discrimination against non-profits that give life-affirming options to women facing unplanned pregnancies. Our violation finding underscores not only that California must follow the Constitution, but that it also must respect federal conscience protection laws when it accepts federal funds.”

This decision perfectly illustrates how no one, not even state governments, are immune to regulations that counteract violations of portability, fraud, and abuse. It is very important as a health care organization to be aware of your rights and of current happenings in the industry. Be sure to sign up for our HIPAA Campus newsletter to help you stay updated on what the OCR is currently investigating and how it might impact your organization.