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Hospitals warned against religious discrimination

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The Department of Health & Human Services tells hospitals they must respect the rights of patients and visitors. The agency cited troubling examples of improper treatment.

Hospitals and health systems have received a blunt message from the federal government warning them against religious discrimination aimed at patients and visitors.

Image credit: ©Jacob Lund - stock.adobe.com

The federal government is warning hospitals and long-term care facilities against religious discrimination aimed at visitors and patients. (Image credit: ©Jacob Lund - stock.adobe.com)

The Department of Health and Human Services, through its Office on Civil Rights, issued the message last week to hospitals and long-term care facilities. The health department said it was issuing the guidance as part of the Biden Administration’s strategy to counter antisemitism.

Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of the Office of Civil Rights, said visitors and patients must be able to practice their faith “without fear of attack or harassment.” The civil rights office enforces regulations prohibiting religious discrimination.

“At OCR, we are taking steps to ensure that the religious needs of patients and other individuals are met when they receive care from hospitals and long-term care facilities,” Rainer said in a statement.

“This includes guaranteeing religious accommodations for those seeking health and human services,” she added.

The health department cited some disturbing examples of improper treatment of patients and visitors based on their faith. (HHS has produced answers to “frequently asked questions” on the issue.)

“OCR received complaints during the COVID-19 public health emergency that certain hospitals enforced visitor prohibitions that did not account for support persons whose physical presence was necessary to assist patients with disabilities with effective communication and decision-making,” the agency said.

The department pointed to hospitals preventing family members from bringing Kosher or halal food to patients to meet the requirements of their faith, even other visitors were permitted to bring food to patients.

Hospitals also denied visitation for some based on their religious observance, or the patient’s faith, the department said. Some hospitals subjected visitors of certain faiths to more stringent screening, according to HHS.

During the pandemic, some hospitals enacted policies allowing patients to visit with family or friends, but barred visits from clergy.

The department also advised healthcare providers that even if a hospital or long-term care facility has a chaplaincy program, the facility still must allow other clergy or faith leaders to visit patients, if it allows other types of visitors.

“Patients and residents of hospitals, critical access hospitals, and long term care facilities have a right to receive visitors of their choosing, including clergy, ministers, chaplains, or faith leaders, and facilities may only limit that right for clinically necessary or reasonable restrictions,” the agency said.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services prohibit hospitals and long-term care facilities from denying or restricting visitation of patients on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.

Hospitals are also required to have written visitation policies, the health department says.

The health department says it’s been increasingly focused on preventing religious discrimination, including antisemitism. The department says it has held listening sessions with Jewish and Muslim chaplains on religious discrimination at healthcare facilities.

Those who believe they have been discriminated against can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

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