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Saturday, March 16, 2024

Science and compassion overcome bigotry and ignorance at Healthcare Provider Shield Act hearing

Protect RI providers against MAGA attacks from other states


It became obvious during Thursday’s Senate Judiciary hearing that opposition to the Healthcare Provider Shield Act, which upon passage would create a protective legal shield for healthcare providers, precluding any civil or criminal action by other states or persons against healthcare providers treating persons seeking access to transgender and reproductive healthcare services provided in Rhode Island, is grounded in ignorance and bigotry against transgender and non-binary people.

The bill is needed because “state bans on healthcare for transgender adolescents passed at an alarming rate in 2023 and now 23 states ban access to this standard of care treatment,” noted Polly Crozier, Director of Family Advocacy at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders

“The impact of these bans has been devastating for transgender young people and for their parents who are now blocked from providing the medical care they have seen help their children thrive and flourish.”

The legislation is supported by a host of pediatric professional organizations and is considered “established best-practice medical care” and “legal standard-of-care medicine.”

The bill will also help Rhode Island retain and attract healthcare workers who may otherwise choose to practice in states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, which have already passed healthcare provider shield laws. 

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, North Providence), who last Tuesday introduced a package of bills meant to improve healthcare access and affordability in Rhode Island, noted that “healthcare must be accessible and affordable for all Rhode Islanders. But for too many people in our state, care is too expensive or too difficult to get. And we know that many healthcare providers are feeling enormous strain due to many factors.”

One reason for the strain felt by healthcare providers is that there are too few providers. “A shortage of providers across all facets of the health system is an especially urgent concern, and while that starts with primary care, it extends to nurses, specialists, counselors, and beyond,” said Senator Pamela Lauria (Democrat, District 32, Barrington) at the same press conference.

Healthcare providers testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed this.

“If we can't protect healthcare providers from infringement on their ability to practice legal standard-of-care medicine, what's to stop primary care doctors from going to Massachusetts or Connecticut where this [healthcare shield law] is in place?” asked Dr. Kate de Klerk, a family physician testifying on behalf of the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians. “The last thing we need is to lose more primary care doctors in this state.”

“At a time when the healthcare workforce is being hit from multiple angles, we must shore up our ranks and retain the very best that we have today,” said Dr. Heather Smith, President of the Rhode Island Medical Society and a board-certified OBGYN. “We must act now to protect our system, our providers, and those needing essential medical care from outside interference.”

“I have been [here] for eight years and would like to stay in Rhode Island providing that care,” said Elizabeth DaSilva, a family nurse practitioner testifying on behalf of Thundermist Health Center. “My concern is that without the Shield Act, my practice and my patient's care could be threatened. I know that there's already a healthcare crisis in Rhode Island and many people don't have access to primary care. If we can't support and protect our providers, why would they stay here? Why would our patients stay here?”

Opponents of the bill are happy to see doctors chased away or deterred from coming to our state. “If this bill were to become law, more doctors will come to Rhode Island from states that have outlawed such practices,” said Westerly resident Robert Chiaradio, who frequently testifies against rights for transgender students across Rhode Island. 

“These [healthcare providers] are not the people we should be protecting. I urge this committee to kill this bill. Don't let it see the light of day. Don't make Rhode Island a destination for this practice and don't protect the professionals who exploit troubled youth for profit.”

“I don't think we should be protecting doctors against these out-of-state malpractice suits,” said Romana Bessenger, who as a public school teacher so incensed her students at Classical High School that they held a walk-out in protest. Bessenger and Chiaradio are clear: Though reproductive and transgender healthcare are established best practices and legal in Rhode Island, they prefer it to not be. 

But instead of advocating for changing the law, they want to allow out-of-state actors to harass Rhode Island healthcare providers, taking them to court and accessing private medical information to impose their bigotry.

Senator Frank Lombardi (Democrat, District 26, Cranston), a conservative Democrat who has voted against marriage equality and reproductive rights, and at this hearing indicated some agreement with those opposed to providing gender-affirming healthcare for youths, pushed back against Bessenger’s arguments.

“I'm not saying I disagree with what you're saying. I agree with a lot of the things you're saying,” said Senator Lombardi, “but in this case, I think that the argument is misapplied, respectfully… This bill is merely saying, ‘Hey Doc, you are free to do what is already lawful in the state of Rhode Island.’ That's the way I see it and maybe I'm oversimplifying it, but that's the way I see it.” 

Senator Lombardi is a co-sponsor of the healthcare shield bill. “I'm a co-sponsor on this one because it's codifying what's already legal in the state of Rhode Island, and that's the only thing I see here.”

Also testifying against the bill was Nicole Solas, a conservative South Kingstown mother and anti-trans activist, who made it clear that she was reading the testimony of Dr. Michelle Cretella, former executive director of the American College of Pediatrics (ACPed), identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “a fringe anti-LGBT hate group that masquerades as a premier United States association of pediatricians to push LGBT junk science…” 

According to Mother Jones, Cretella left ACPed in 2021, a few years before a massive data leak revealed just how extreme the group was.

The testimony of Cretella, Chiaradio, and Solas was best summarized by Dr. Emily Allen, a board-certified pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, testifying on behalf of herself and the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics

“Robert Chiaradio and Dr. Cretella's testimonies were riddled with disinformation, offensive and inflammatory language, omissions, and misrepresentation of research - and were not rooted in real science or evidence-based medicine,” said Dr. Allen. 

“Every major medical association and leading world health authority supports healthcare for transgender people and youth, including the largest pediatric professional organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the World Health Organization, and more.”

The hearing ended with a statement from Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsored the Healthcare Provider Shield Law. 

“I want to say a word to the trans community, especially any trans kids who are listening tonight: Not everybody shares the opinion [about] the disinformation that was shared tonight. You are beautiful, you are important, and we need you.”