We are often at our most vulnerable when seeking the help of a healthcare provider. Throughout its history, the US Dept. of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights has been central to enforcing nondiscrimination protections to ensure all patients are treated with dignity and respect. Under the leadership of former director Roger Severino, HHS OCR departed from this mission, revoking essential nondiscrimination provisions that protect those seeking care.
However recent changes to the Office of Civil Rights’ website indicate a shift in priorities for HHS. A recent POLITICO review found that several items from an archived version of OCR’s website from January 22nd, 2021 no longer appear on its homepage. Removed content includes a video forum in which former director Severino argued that houses of worship should be exempt from COVID-19 public health restrictions.
As internal changes are underway, on February 10, 2021, a federal court prevented a Trump era healthcare rule proposed by the previous administration from going into effect earlier this month. The proposed change would roll back essential nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and other characteristics in HHS grant-funded services.
The HHS Office of Civil Rights should strive to ensure all patients receive the care that they need, regardless of who they are or what they believe. At the start of a new administration, OCR has an opportunity to renew its commitment to healthcare that advances the health and well-being of all Americans.
Healthcare decisions should be driven by patient needs, not provider beliefs.
Decisions about whether and when to seek care are deeply personal, often informed by a patient’s religious and moral convictions. But certain healthcare providers have used religious exemptions to deny patients care – particularly LGBTQ+ people and those seeking reproductive healthcare. By misusing religious freedom to discriminate, these providers can withhold critical care to patients when they need it most. Even amid a deadly pandemic, OCR aided these efforts by rolling back critical healthcare protections for LGBTQ+ people, women, people with limited English proficiency, and many others.
The HHS Office of Civil Rights was created to protect patients from discrimination, not create pathways for providers to cut off patients from care. Moving forward, OCR must embrace policies that protect all patients, not just the few.
All patients deserve to be treated with fairness, equality, and compassion.
Our civil rights are mutually reinforcing, with no one right superseding another. The Office of Civil Rights must recognize all forms of discrimination as contrary to its purpose and worthy of attention. As we work to meet the challenges ahead, we have an opportunity not only to address current flaws but reimagine a healthcare system that better meets patients’ needs.
Learn more about our work to combat the misuse of religious freedom to cause harm.