For senior living, a time bomb dressed as a good deed

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

We're learning that the folks over at the Department of Health and Human Services are cooking up new rules for caregivers.

The idea here is to make sure workers don't have to perform duties they find morally objectionable.

Toward this end, the feds plan to establish a new division within the department's civil rights office to do relevant compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions.

Depending on your perspective, this development is either long overdue or another sign of the Apocalypse.

Roger Severino, who heads the HHS civil rights office, has made it clear that one of his top priorities is strengthening conscience protections for healthcare workers. And many of his colleagues are still sore that the Obama administration rolled back regulations that gave legal cover to workers affirming their religious protections. So it's probably safe to say there's a bit of payback involved.

I don't have a dog in this hunt. And I can see where each side is coming from. On the one hand, people should not be forced to do things they believe are wrong. On the other, discrimination should never be condoned in a society that wants to consider itself fair and just.

What makes this issue problematic is that it's sometimes difficult to do adhere to one of these guiding principles without running afoul of the other.

And then there's this: Where does the line get drawn? What if you find it morally offensive to obey a DNR order? Or to deliver care to a person who committed a despicable act? The high moral ground can turn into a slippery slope pretty quickly.

To take things to an extreme, what if your religious affiliation follows practices that those outside the club might find goofy or even offensive? Remember the “Pastafarians,” who claimed to be members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Harmless fun, right? Turns out they were allowed to wear spaghetti strainers on their heads when taking their driver's license photos.

You really have to wonder how many more goofballs might be inspired by these new rules to “find religion.”  Or if the dogma guiding such newly faithful practitioners will be nearly as quaint.

So for what it's worth, here's my advice to the Trump administration: proceed here with caution. We live in a world of unintended consequences. It might not take much for this good deed to go completely haywire.

John O'Connor is editorial director of McKnight's Senior Living. Email him at john.oconnor@mcknights.com.

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