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HHS’ Office for Civil Rights Created a New Office for Discrimination – and We Demand They Explain Just What Exactly They Think They’re Doing

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced the establishment of a new division solely focused on protecting health care providers and institutions that use personal beliefs to discriminate against and refuse to treat patients. In creating this new office for discrimination, the Trump Administration is taking yet another step to prioritize religious beliefs over patient care.

A health care provider’s religious beliefs should never dictate the care a patient receives. Instead of promoting regulations and policies that put providers’ religious beliefs ahead of patient care, OCR should be working to advance its core mission of ensuring equal access to health care.

This new division is unnecessary to enforce current law

This new division is completely unnecessary. Unfortunately, existing federal law already allows health care providers to refuse to treat a woman seeking an abortion or sterilization, and OCR has authority to enforce those existing laws. In 2011, the Obama Administration finalized a rule making it clear that OCR has authority to receive and coordinate complaints under those laws. OCR provides education about provider rights, as well as its role in investigating and resolving complaints under the laws. No new structure is necessary for OCR to carry out these duties.

In fact, HHS itself stated in the Proposed Rule issued last Friday that only 10 complaints had ever been filed under federal refusal laws before November 2016. The creation of this new division is a solution to a problem that does not exist.

The Trump Administration is seriously overreaching

Additionally, this new division’s announcement the Trump Administration claims broad authority for OCR to interpret and enforce laws that are not normally enforced by HHS. This language signals that the Trump Administration is not only creating an unnecessary office to enforce existing laws, but it also may be overreaching into areas of law that are not within its purview at all. Coupled with the issuance of a Proposed Rule on Friday attempting to expand and create new religious exemptions, the Trump Administration is seriously – and illegally – overreaching.

The NWLC won’t stand by and watch the Trump Administration unlawfully attempt to expand its power on behalf of providers who discriminate and refuse health care. That’s why NWLC has filed a FOIA request to find out exactly how the Administration is interpreting its authority to justify creating this new division.

The Trump Administration is diverting resources away from patients facing discrimination

We know that allowing providers and institutions to refuse care to individuals based on personal beliefs harms patients, causing illness, infertility, and death. We also know that discrimination and refusals of health care disproportionately impact individuals who already face multiple barriers to care, including people of color, LGBQ and trans individuals, women seeking reproductive services, people facing language barriers, and those struggling to make ends meet.

OCR should be enforcing all anti-discrimination protections in health care, not using its resources to protect those who refuse health care and discriminate against patients. For example, OCR is responsible for enforcing:

  • The nondiscrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act, which protects people from discrimination in health care on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex – including sex stereotyping and gender identity – age, and disability; and
  •       Non-discrimination provisions of federal law that protect health care professionals who do provide abortion and sterilization services, from discrimination by their hospital or other employer.

The Trump Administration’s continued prioritization of providers’ religious beliefs over patients’ equal access to care is a perversion of HHS’ mission that cannot be ignored.