BURLINGTON, Vt. – UVM Medical Center is denying allegations that it forced a nurse to assist with an abortion in violation of federal law, even as an attorney for the nurse warned that at least four other complaints are in the works.
“This is not over for the University of Vermont,” said Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law & Justice.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services announced Wednesday that an investigation by its Office of Civil Rights found UVMMC discriminates against employees who express moral or religious objections to abortion.
The Notice of Violation details a complaint by a nurse complaint, filed a year after the May 2017 abortion, that claims UVMMC personnel coerced the nurse into assisting with an abortion. Federal health officials have given UVMMC 30 days to change its policies or risk losing roughly $1.6 million in federal funding.
In a statement, UVMMC denied the allegations and said it has “robust, formal protections” to protect both their employees’ conscious-based rights and their patients’ rights to abortion.
“We do not discriminate against any employees for exercising their rights to opt out of procedures to which they object,” the hospital’s statement said.
On Thursday, Stephen Leffler, UVMMC’s interim president, echoed the statement, saying the hospital conducted its own investigation of the nurse’s claim and found no violations of federal law or hospital policy.
“We believe the facts don’t support their conclusion,” Leffler said.
Leffler said UVMMC’s internal investigation was conducted in the months following the May 2017 abortion. He declined to discuss the findings in detail, city patient care and personnel matters.
He acknowledged that, under the hospital’s policy, employees “could have to participate in something that makes them uncomfortable” in rare circumstances.
The nurse’s attorney, Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law & Justice, said that violates the Church Amendments, which prohibit hospitals and clinics that receive federal funding to require personnel to provide abortions or sterilizations when they objected on “the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Appearing on “Fox & Friends” on Thursday, said UVMMC’s policy doesn’t offer the kind of protections required by the law.
“If you really read that statement, it says ‘Well, if we can accommodate you,’ and that’s what HHS found,” Sekulow said. “That’s not the federal law that was passed by Congress, that’s not what HHS enforces. It’s not ‘If we can accommodate, we will accommodate you’ — you must accommodate the objector.”
Leffler pushed back on claims that UVMMC did not cooperate with federal investigators. Hospital officials say they weren’t aware of the alleged violation until reporters contacted them for a response.
“We offered to meet with them, we offered to share our policy with them and get input on how we might be able to strengthen it to protect our patients and staff, and they did not take us up on that,” Leffler said.
“We’re somewhat disappointed they chose to bring this out into the media yesterday than coming to work with us.”
On Fox & Friends, Sekulow said at least four other UVMMC nurses have filed similar complaints with the federal agency. And he announced efforts to expose alleged Church Amendment violations at other hospitals.
“This is not the end for the University of Vermont, nor for many other medical institutions,” he said. “We’re launching a campaign asking nurses, doctors, medical professionals to come to us and let us know if this is happening to them, and we believe it is.”