March 28, 2020
BULLETIN: Civil Rights, HIPAA, and the Coronavirus Disease 2019
In light of the Public Health Emergency concerning the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is providing this bulletin to ensure that entities covered by civil rights authorities keep in mind their obligations under 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.1 In this time of emergency, the laudable goal of providing care quickly and efficiently must be guided by the fundamental principles of fairness, equality, and compassion that animate our civil rights laws. This is particularly true with respect to the treatment of persons with disabilities during medical emergencies as they possess the same dignity and worth as everyone else.
The Office for Civil Rights enforces 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. These laws, like other civil rights statutes OCR enforces, remain in effect. 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 or age. 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.
“HHS is committed to leaving no one behind during an emergency, and this guidance is designed to help health care providers meet that goal,” said Roger Severino, OCR Director. “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. Our civil rights laws protect the equal dignity of every human life from ruthless utilitarianism,” Severino added.