Phil Weiser at the CPR studios Monday Dec. 17, 2018.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Colorado will again sue the Trump administration, this time to challenge an impending rule that aims to protect health care workers who object to performing certain services on grounds of religion or conscience.

Weiser told Colorado Matters that he's suing because the new rule is “over broad” and could “hurt patients,” but if the state does not enforce the rule, the federal government could withhold $6.5 billion earmarked for Colorado health care.

State Attorney General Phil Weiser was clear during his campaign for state office about his willingness to launch or join suits against the Trump administration.

Since Weiser took office in January, Colorado has joined several lawsuits against the Trump administration, including suits over federal rules restricting birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act  and for money withheld over immigration enforcement.

The attorney general also discussed ongoing, multi-state suits against opioid-producing pharmaceutical companies and the challenge local gun owners filed against the red flag gun law passed by the state legislature earlier this spring.

Interview Highlights

On why he opposes the Trump administration's health care worker religious freedom guideline:

"This rule threatens to withhold $6.5 billion of support for health care here in Colorado. It will hurt Coloradans, including people for example, who are victims of sexual assault, who are entitled under Colorado law to emergency contraception.

When someone goes to a health care provider, they expect to be treated. This rule could create incredible mischief, withholding treatment from people who might not even realize what’s happening. Informed consent is a principle that says if you’re a patient and you go to a doctor and you have a range of options, you expect to be told about them.

But here, people can say I’m not going to provide health care because of my conscientious objection and this is above and beyond the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which already provides a baseline of protection. This rule is unnecessary and it threatens to do real harm."

On the latest with a lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma:

"We are dedicated to righting, the best we can, the wrong of the opioid epidemic. You mentioned Purdue Pharma. They have pushed OxyContin over a series of years through lies, through deception. They’ve made a whole bunch of money. We need to hold them accountable.

We’re going to be very soon amending the complaint we have against them, adding the Sackler family who is the family who has owned a lot of the shares in Purdue Pharma, has made a bunch of money, directed the actions, they, too, need to be held accountable.

Facts that have come out in other cases — Oklahoma, Massachusetts, for example — shows the extent of the deception and wrongdoing. We need to hold them accountable and take those funds and use it to support drug treatment."

On how he will defend the state's new red flag gun law:

"We’ll defend the law by making the case that this law is constitutional. Our job is to make the case for that. I believe we will be able to do so successfully.

It’s worth underscoring this law is going to save lives. It is an important measure that will help us give law enforcement a critical tool — the ability to remove firearms from people who pose a significant risk to themselves or others. Right now, we haven’t had that tool.

Obviously, the law is named after Zach Parrish who died in a situation where had we had this tool, Sheriff Tony Spurlock believes, Zach Parrish would still be alive."

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I’m Ryan Warner. The Trump Administration wants to protect health care workers who object to performing certain services on the grounds of religion or conscience. A new rule will go into effect any day now and when it does, Colorado will sue to stop it. That’s a story you’ll hear first on CPR News. State Attorney General Phil Weiser is my guest and Mr. Attorney General, welcome back to the program.

 

Attorney General Phil Weiser: Ryan, it’s always great to be here with you.

 

RW: The Trump Administration says this rule will protect health care workers who conscientiously object to providing services like abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide. Why are you suing to stop it?

 

PW: Because this rule threatens to withhold $6.5 billion of support for health care here in Colorado. It will hurt Coloradans, including people for example, who are victims of sexual assault, who are entitled under Colorado law to emergency contraception. When someone goes to a health care provider, they expect to be treated. This rule could create incredible mischief, withholding treatment from people who might not even realize what’s happening. Informed consent is a principle that says if you’re a patient and you go to a doctor and you have a range of options, you expect to be told about them. But here, people can say I’m not going to provide health care because of my conscientious objection and this is above and beyond the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which already provides a baseline of protection. This rule is unnecessary and it threatens to do real harm.

 

RW: How do you come up with this $6.5 billion figure? Where does the money enter the picture?

 

PW: That’s what this rule would do. It would condition all federal money for health care to Colorado, $6.5 billion of it, if we don’t make sure that people have the ability to effectively opt-out and not provide health care when they raise a conscientious objection. This is a huge imposition and it could really play out in all sorts of even unintended consequences to hurt patients. We don’t think this rule is necessary. We think it is outside of what the law requires and we believe it’s going to hurt Coloradans.

 

RW: The Department of Health and Human Services says this protects religious freedom and ensures that health care entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the health care field. Roger Severino who heads the Office of Civil Rights for HHS spoke to NPR earlier this month.

 

Roger Severino: No new law is being made here. What is being done is the provision of enforcement tools for existing conscience and religious freedom protections in health care.

 

RW: The Christian Medical Association logs cases of health care workers who say they’ve been discriminated against for their beliefs. Like an anesthesiologist who didn’t want to issue an abortion referral and even the AMA’s Code of Ethics leaves room for conscientious objections when it’s not an emergency. So where would you draw the line?

 

PW: Let me start with the Hippocratic Oath which says health care entities and health care providers do no harm. This concept means even if someone is hateful to you, think about John Wilkes Booth going to a doctor. Medical professionals have a duty to treat people. And you can imagine for example, someone who’s a homosexual who shows up and needs health care and someone says, “I’m sorry, I’m not willing to treat you.” This rule goes so far as to give people broad protections based on who you are or what type of health care treatment you need, you may not get treated. This goes against what people have a right to expect with health care. 

 

As for religious freedom, there are already protections in place that have been crafted appropriately. This protection is over broad. It is a huge extension of what we’ve had before, unnecessary, and really threatens to harm people.

 

RW: Okay, Colorado is in the midst of a lawsuit against OxyContin maker, Purdue Pharma and the allegation is that that company promoted the drug in a misleading way and contributed to the opioid crisis which has killed thousands of Coloradans. What’s the latest on that?

 

PW: We are dedicated to righting the best we can, the wrong of the opioid epidemic. You mentioned Purdue Pharma. They have pushed OxyContin over a series of years through lies, through deception. They’ve made a whole bunch of money. We need to hold them accountable. We’re going to be very soon amending the complaint we have against them, adding the Sackler family who is the family who has owned a lot of the shares in Purdue Pharma, has made a bunch of money, directed the actions, they, too, need to be held accountable. Facts that have come out in other cases — Oklahoma, Massachusetts, for example — shows the extent of the deception and wrongdoing. We need to hold them accountable and take those funds and use it to support drug treatment.

 

RW: That is to say you’re going after not just the company but individuals then behind the company. I believe other states have taken this action as well so Colorado joins those states in targeting the family specifically.

 

PW: You’ve got that right, Ryan.

 

RW: Okay. Colorado also recently joined another lawsuit against big pharma. Along with 43 other states, it alleges that generic drug companies conspire to fix prices for medications that treat cancer, asthma, diabetes. You’ve been clear that you would like any settlement from the Purdue Pharma case to go towards addiction treatment programs. How would you want the state to use any money awarded in that case against generic drug makers?

 

PW: Ryan, if I could, just a minute on what happened here. This was a whole bunch of companies and executives led by Teva Pharmaceuticals to fix prices and raise prices on these generic drugs, including 1,000 percent increases. This has led people to avoid treatment because they couldn’t pay for the medication. This has raised prices for people who are working really hard and have to forego other expenses because they need these drugs to survive. This was lawless behavior. It’s in violation of anti-trust laws. I’ve worked in this area for the last 25 years. This case is really one of the bad ones. It’s important that we hold them accountable.

 

As for the funds themselves, if we can, this is a principle that we follow, we want the money to go back to the people who are harmed. This may be a case where it’s very complicated to do so in which case we’d have a broader mandate towards health care and health outcomes and that’s what we’d use the money for.

 

RW: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and Colorado’s Attorney General, Phil Weiser is my guest.

The Red Flag Gun Bill passed in the legislature this year would allow for the temporary removal of firearms from someone who’s a threat to themselves or others. A judge would have to sign off. The law goes into effect next year but it’s being challenged in court. Rocky Mountain gun owners filed a suit earlier this month, not so much based on the substance of the law, which they also object to, but claiming that the legislative process was flawed. Let’s hear the group’s executive director, Dudley Brown.

 

Dudley Brown: In this case, the Democrats didn’t see that they were violating the Constitution but passed the bill to violate the Constitution and now they’re going to see it.

 

RW: How will you defend the law?

 

PW: We’ll defend the law by making the case that this law is constitutional. It is —

 

RW: Is the process that yielded it constitutional?

 

PW: Our job is to make the case for that. I believe we will be able to do so successfully. It’s worth underscoring this law is going to save lives. It is an important measure that will help us give law enforcement a critical tool — the ability to remove firearms from people who pose a significant risk to themselves or others. Right now, we haven’t had that tool. Obviously, the law is named after Zach Parrish who died in a situation where had we had this tool, Sheriff Tony Spurlock believes, Zach Parrish would still be alive.

 

RW: Do you think the legislative process to pass it was sort of squeaky clean? Like did you have confidence as the defender of that that it’s constitutional?

 

PW: I’m confident we’re going to be able to defend this law. We hired the lawyer for the state and that’s our role to do it, I believe we’ll do so successfully here.

 

RW: There’s an inquiry underway into sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in Colorado. You announced that independent inquiry in February and said that the three Catholic dioceses in the state are participating voluntarily. Is there anything you can tell us about the progress that’s been made?

 

PW: I can only say that the Special Master is working hard on this important work. We will have a report that will name names this fall, talking about childhood sexual abuse by priests, talking about how the Catholic Church responded. We’re also going to be standing up a program for people who’ve been wronged to give them compensation. We also have a hotline for victims of sexual abuse that they can call and they can find support services. This is a severe challenge that unfortunately we haven’t addressed well enough. This initiative is something to bring into the sunlight. What has happened? How has the Church responded in helping people who are hurt get the help they need?

 

RW: You said that the report will name names. Tell me why that’s important and are those likely to be names we haven’t necessarily seen associated with abuse before.

 

PW: At this point, it’s early to talk about specifics but I will say in general, the reason we have to name names is accountability. There are people who may not have been referred to law enforcement in a timely way. They may not even be alive anymore but they hurt people. They took advantage of people. For the victims and for society, it’s important that we name names and hold people accountable when they do such terrible acts.

 

RW: Improving how sexual assault survivors are treated in the justice system was something you campaigned on, Phil Weiser, and I think you vowed to create a Sexual Assault Assistance Unit with specialized prosecutors and investigators. I wonder if I can ask about the status of that.

 

PW: We’re working on how we help support DAs across the state. We’ve got a unique role in our office which is we are a partner to district attorneys with specialized support, including in the area of sexual assault. And it’s worth noting one area this has really been incredibly painful which is human trafficking which is people who are forced to commit acts against their will. We are in the process of making sure we have the resources and ability to support our DA partners for sexual assault victims, for human trafficking victims. This is going to be an ongoing project and one of our priorities.

 

RW: Are you backing away here from the idea of a Sexual Assault Assistance Unit?

 

PW: Well the unit is going to be within our Special Prosecutions Unit. So it may not necessarily be a stand-alone, but it’s going to be a core function that we’re going to have to provide those who need support. This is something that, as you know, is a real societal problem and we want to make sure that we’re addressing it effectively here in Colorado.

 

RW: You’re part of a coalition that sent a letter to Congress asking for a bill to give marijuana-related businesses access to the federal banking system. These businesses don’t have access right now because marijuana is still illegal federally. Why is it important to you as the state’s top law enforcement official? I’m curious.

 

PW: We here in Colorado have made a decision. We’re not going to put people in jail for using marijuana or for selling it. We’re going to tax it. We’re going to regulate it. Our public safety, our policy, is threatened by the fact that companies here in Colorado can’t use the banking system. They actually have piles of cash in their businesses. They do business in cash. It’s just not as safe. We got 38 AGs in total, bipartisan group. It is now the official policy of the National Association of Attorneys General, that’s something our office led to send a clear message to Congress. We need action here to help protect public safety and do what’s right and follow common sense. And that’s allow marijuana businesses access to the banking system.

 

RW: Thanks for being with us, Attorney General.

 

PW: It’s always a pleasure, Ryan. Thanks for your great work.

 

RW: That’s Phil Weiser. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.