It’s a letter with a return address packed with intimidation: The Office for Civil Rights [OCR], Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. It’s almost never a best wishes card. It’s the sort of letter that keeps people who run places up at night.

Which, in this case, is accurate.

The letter was received by the UVM Medical Center. The OCR was threatening the medical center for allegedly violating federal laws [known as the Church amendments] that allow hospital employees to opt-out of hospital procedures that violate their religious or moral objections. Most commonly, this means abortions.

The threat against UVM came twice last week. In an email, UVMMC president and chief operating officer Steve Leffler, MD, did what he was bound to do which is to respond to the federal inquisitors in clear, unmistakable language: The charges were completely inaccurate and the hospital had no intention of stepping back from the fight should the feds choose to pursue it.

This is not a new story. The charges have been leveled before to UVMMC and to other institutions. In January, 2018 the Trump administration announced the creation of a new division of the Office for Civil Rights called the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division [CRFD]. Its powers were expanded to basically address issues of conscience and religious freedom. The power of the governmental unit is not inconsequential, including the ability to restrict federal funding.

The in-between-the-lines purpose of the newly created division was to continue the assault on women’s reproductive rights.

In Vermont’s case, the government picked the wrong target. Not only did the hospital respond properly, and with the evidence necessary to show that it adheres to the law, and has all along, but the issue has galvanized political leaders across the state in its defense.

That’s the power of telling your story, which Mr. Leffler did. The email included this from Mr. Leffler: “OCR’s latest threats are not just baseless from a legal standpoint, they’re an attack on reproductive care, and we will do everything we can to protect our patients’ access to the services they need.”

What is so repugnant is that a year ago the OCR told UVMMC that it had dropped any pursuit of past allegations. For good reason. Not only were the allegations false, but the feds were losing the court cases they had taken to court.

So why would it recant?

Two guesses and one doesn’t count: The Trump presidency is about to end and this is what it wants in play when the new administration takes over. It tells you all you need to know.

The people at UVMMC aren’t new to the game. They are smart enough to play by the rules. But now, they are also learning how to tell their story, the good as well as the not so good.

It helps build trust and it helps generate a stronger following as our legislative leaders have responded in kind, opposed to the federal belligerence against women’s reproductive rights. Ultimately, that’s what makes letters from this department less intimidating.

by Emerson Lynn

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