State

Illinois House approves changes to Health Care Right of Conscience Act

Senate could vote on bill Thursday; would take effect June 2022 if signed

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House passed a measure Wednesday night that would give employers greater authority to enforce COVID-19 vaccine or testing requirements.

The final vote came after 10 p.m. Wednesday, passing on a 64-52 roll call with two present votes. No Republicans voted for it, and enough Democrats peeled support for it to fail to meet the three-fifths majority that would allow it to become law before June 1, 2022. It still needs Senate approval before it can head to the governor, who supports it.

The measure, also backed by Attorney General Kwame Raoul, had become a flash point, with opponents calling it an infringement on personal freedoms and proponents classifying it as an effort to clarify existing law to close a legal loophole allowing people to flout COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandates.

More than 50,000 witness slips were filed against it on the Illinois General Assembly website.

House Floor Amendment 3 to Senate Bill 1169 would amend the  Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which currently prohibits discrimination against anyone for their “conscientious refusal to receive, obtain, accept, perform, assist, counsel, suggest, recommend, refer or participate in any way in any particular form of health care services contrary to his or her conscience.”

The amendment would insert language stating that it is not a violation of the law for an employer “to take any measures or impose any requirements …intended to prevent contraction or transmission of COVID-19.”

Its proponents argued in committee and on the floor that it’s needed to strengthen vaccine mandates by allowing employers to enforce them.

Ashley Wright, chief of legislative affairs for Raoul’s office, said at a committee hearing Tuesday that there have been recent court decisions in Illinois, including one earlier Tuesday, in which judges have blocked employers from enforcing vaccine mandates, citing the existing HCRC Act.

The court decisions have also been used to forgo testing requirements.

After 8 p.m. Wednesday, Raoul was seen discussing the matter with Rep. Robyn Gabel, an Evanston Democrat and the bill’s chief House sponsor, outside of House chambers, but he declined a Capitol News Illinois interview request.

In floor debate, Gabel said the HCRC Act was initially passed “to preserve the ability of health care providers, including pharmacists, to refuse to perform or provide health services related to abortion and reproductive health care that violate their conscience.”

The reason for her bill was to clarify that existing law, she said, because it should not be applicable to mitigation measures aimed at slowing a deadly pandemic. Those with health care or religious concerns regarding mandate compliance can still access federal exemptions, she said.

“Contrary to rampant misinformation campaigns, this bill is not a vaccine mandate,” she said. “In fact, it does not require anyone to do anything. As the bill itself says, this is simply a declaration of existing law and shall not be construed as a new enactment.”

Gov. JB Pritzker spoke on the bill at a news conference earlier in the day, pointing to its use to skirt vaccine or testing mandates.

“Just yelling out ‘conscience’ and saying, you know, ‘I don’t want to do it’ isn’t good enough,” Pritzker said. “We have to keep people healthy and safe. That’s the whole purpose of the mitigations that we’ve put in place. Now, the Health Care Right of Conscience Act is being misinterpreted and used in court cases to try to allow people who just don’t want to get vaccinated, are anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers, to avoid the rules.”

Critics of the bill, however, argued the language is overly broad and that the Health Care Right of Conscience Act actually was intended to protect an individual’s right to make his or her own health care decisions.

“This legislation is designed to lead to absurd results, where you can let an employer or any person employed by any unit of government in the state of Illinois to force a person to do things, even things your doctor thinks is medically contraindicated, wrong or harmful,” Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, said in floor debate. “And tonight, your yes vote means you’ve denied them a remedial claim.”

Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, said a decision on vaccination should be between a doctor and a patient, and the proposed change is a clear change to existing law, not simply a clarification of it.

“This is pretty clear,” he said of the existing law. “This is actually very clear, that people expect a right, they have a right right now. They have a right and this bill effectively changes that right when it comes to COVID-19.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.