HHS reminds providers of civil rights obligations amid COVID-19 race disparities

Dive Brief:

  • HHS on Monday reminded providers of their legal obligation to follow federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin following an uptick in discrimination complaints since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
  • The agency issued guidance for providers to ensure compliance. Examples include not assigning a physician, nurse or caregiver to a patient on the basis of race, and ensuring minority groups are not subjected to excessive wait times, rejected for hospital admissions or denied access to intensive care units compared to their non-minority peers.
  • Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said the agency is working with NAACP state leaders in the Midwest to ensure minority communities are educated on their rights as patients and to collect complaints from those who feel theirs have been violated.

Dive Insight:

Racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age, due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that Black people are five times more likely to contract the virus than white people.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams acknowledged the disparity during a Monday call with reporters and stressed the responsibilities providers have in ensuring equal access to care. Adams said the pandemic is “changing lives, it’s changing the way we conduct business, and in many ways my hope in the long term is it will change the way we conduct business for the better.”

OCR did not respond to requests to elaborate on whether a verified complaint or lawsuit would lead it to renounce a provider’s federal funding. It also did not comment on the process OCR takes when it receives a complaint, but said it has seen a rise in those filed against healthcare providers.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has long mandated that federally funded entities, such as schools or healthcare providers, must not discriminate on the basis of race. That funding now includes major COVID-19 relief packages for providers, many of which have yet to receive their allocations.

Providing medical interpreters for non-English speaking patients was an issue at stressed New York hospitals earlier this year, Severino said, and a critical component of following Title VI protections to ensure patients receive equal access to care.

Other guidance for providers include ensuring ambulance service, non-emergency medical transportation and home health services are available to all neighborhoods within the recipient’s service area, without regard to race, color or national origin.

Patients who feel their rights have been violated should file a complaint through HHS’ online portal, Severino said. 

“This guidance reminds providers that unlawful racial discrimination in healthcare will not be tolerated, especially during a pandemic,” he said.