HHS Office of Civil Rights Issues Bulletin Regarding COVID-19 and Civil Rights Issues and Resource Allocation

By Colin Knisely

In response to a complaint from disability advocacy groups in Washington state regarding health care rationing, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a reminder to entities covered by federal civil rights statutes of their ongoing obligation, amid the COVID-19 crisis, to prohibit discrimination on the base of race, color, national origin,  age, religion, sex, and disability.  OCR is responsible for enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The bulletin reminds covered entities that “persons with disabilities should not be denied medical care based on stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about a person’s relative ‘worth’ based on the presence or absence of disabilities.”

“Persons with disabilities, with limited English skills, or needing religious accommodations should not be put at the end of the line for health services during emergencies.” Said  OCR Director Roger Severino.

The bulletin reminds covered entities of their obligations under relevant federal statutes, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Providing effective communication with individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, visually impaired, or blind;
  • Providing access to information and programs to individuals with limited English skills;
  • Addressing the needs of disabled persons, including those with disability impairments;
  • Making emergency messaging available in plain language in the languages prevalent in the affected area, in multiple formats, and ensuring that websites providing emergency-related information  are accessible; and
  • Respecting requests for religious accommodations in medical treatment.

The bulletin does note that some accommodations may not be required because they would require a fundamental alteration of a business or program, would impose an undue financial burden on a covered entity, or pose a direct threat.  The complete bulletin can be found here.