HHS: Health Care Providers Must Follow Discrimination Compliance in COVID-19 Pandemic

Over the past month, health care practices have been navigating through numerous short-term adjustments to compliance protocol due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. One facet of compliance that has not changed, however, concerns anti-discrimination.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently issued a bulletin to remind health care providers that they must comply with “laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex, and exercise of conscience and religion in HHS-funded programs” — especially during COVID-19.

Denial Based on Disability is Prohibited

In its note about compliance during COVID-19, the OCR-HHS says it is enforcing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, “which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in HHS funded health programs or activities.”

“As such, persons with disabilities should not be denied medical care on the basis of stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about a person’s relative ‘worth’ based on the presence or absence of disabilities. Decisions by covered entities concerning whether an individual is a candidate for treatment should be based on an individualized assessment of the patient based on the best available objective medical evidence.”

Communication and Religious Accommodations

The OCR-HHS further stresses in its health care compliance bulletin that “health care providers, and covered entities should not overlook their obligations under federal civil rights laws to help ensure all segments of the community are served by:

  • Providing effective communication with individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, and visually impaired through the use of qualified interpreters, picture boards, and other means;
  • Providing meaningful access to programs and information to individuals with limited English proficiency through the use of qualified interpreters and through other means;
  • Making emergency messaging available in plain language and in languages prevalent in the affected area(s) and in multiple formats, such as audio, large print, and captioning, and ensuring that websites providing emergency-related information are accessible;
  • Addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities, including individuals with mobility impairments, individuals who use assistive devices or durable medical equipment, and individuals with immunosuppressed conditions including HIV/AIDS in emergency planning; [and]
  • Respecting requests for religious accommodations in treatment and access to clergy or faith practices as practicable.”

However, the OCR HHS says, “Some actions or accommodations may not be required on the basis that they may fundamentally alter the nature of a program, pose an undue financial and administrative burden, or pose a direct threat.”

We Are Here to Keep You Apprised

We at Chapman Law Group know how physicians, nurses, and other health professionals are working under immense circumstances because of Coronavirus. We understand that being confused over what compliance modifications have been made only makes things more difficult as you concentrate on the COVID-19 fight.

But as the battle forges ahead, we must stress how crucial it is to follow anti-discrimination laws protocol. Failing to do so could mean a comprehensive OCR investigation; a referral to the Department of Justice for enforcement action; and termination of federal financial assistance.

While you focus on keeping patients and staff safe from COVID-19, our health care lawyers are here to advise you on making sure you’re being compliant. Contact us today so we may assess where your practice stands.

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