As we mark Black History Month, we recognize the role of the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which has deep roots in enforcing federal civil rights laws that ensure nondiscrimination based on race, color, and national origin. Our office was created to desegregate hospitals shortly after the passage of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and creation of the Medicare program. Our work has remained critical throughout the many changes in our health care system in the decades since then, including the Affordable Care Act and its central nondiscrimination provision known as Section 1557.
OCR’s work today continues to support HHS’ core mission, to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans, by providing access to quality health care and human services. Diversity, equity, and nondiscrimination are hallmarks of the Biden-Harris Administration, and OCR is central in the Department’s efforts to advance racial equity and promote better health access and outcomes for people of color and other underserved groups. This commitment is reflected in our enforcement of federal civil rights and privacy laws to ensure HHS services are free of discrimination, bias, and barriers.
Some of our recent efforts include:
Strengthening Nondiscrimination in Health Care
Last year, OCR issued a proposed rule revising Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act that includes robust provisions to protect people from discrimination and supports the Biden-Harris Administration’s priority of advancing equity and civil rights. Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or disability in certain health programs or activities and is one of the government’s most powerful tools to ensure nondiscriminatory access to health care.
Removing Language Barriers
As a part of this Administration's accessibility and inclusion efforts, and in response to President Biden’s Executive Orders and similar obligations under the HHS Equity Action Plan, OCR is working to ensure that all people have meaningful access to health and human services programs and activities. It is particularly critical in health care settings to ensure patients understand information, particularly when English is not their primary language, because miscommunication may lead to misdiagnosis and improper or delayed medical treatment.
- OCR is leading the way on HHS actions in this area and recently relaunched the HHS Language Access Steering Committee.
- As part of this effort, all HHS agencies will reassess and update their language access plans to improve and ensure the quality and accuracy of language access services in HHS-funded health and human services programs and activities.
Promoting Reproductive Health Care
The day the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overruling Roe v. Wade came out, HHS launched reproductiverights.gov, where HHS Secretary Becerra laid out a clear plan of action for HHS. Recognizing the high maternal mortality rate of Black women and how the Dobbs decision exacerbates these inequities and disparities, OCR issued multiple guidance documents so that health care providers understand their obligations and patients understand the protections of federal laws.
- Read the OCR guidance on protecting the privacy of reproductive health care information.
- Read the OCR guidance on protecting the privacy and security of health information when using your personal cell phone or tablet.
- Read the OCR guidance to the roughly 60,000 U.S. retail pharmacies, clarifying their obligations under federal civil rights laws to ensure patients get access to reproductive health and other needed medications.
OCR is also actively convening meetings with stakeholders in response to EO 14079, Securing Access to Reproductive and Other Healthcare Services.
Ensuring Vaccine Equity
- OCR recently issued guidance to providers about their obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act to ensure non-discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in administering COVID-19 vaccination programs.
- The guidance makes clear that whether information is distributed via flyers, online information portals, or in person at vaccine distribution sites, federally funded entities are under a legal obligation that COVID-19 vaccination programs be accessible and free of discriminatory barriers that limit a community’s ability to receive vaccinations, including boosters.
Ensuring Equal Access to Telehealth
- OCR with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued guidance on nondiscrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, and disability in accessing telehealth.
- The guidance explains legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- It provides information to health care providers about their nondiscrimination obligations and practical tips about how to provide accessible telehealth.
Strengthening the Health Care Workforce to Meet America’s Diverse Needs
- Each summer, OCR continues a long-standing collaboration with the Association of American Medical Colleges to deliver civil rights compliance training to pre-medical and pre-dental college students.
- From June to August, OCR staff members deliver training to approximately 1,000 students at colleges and universities across the country, including historically Black institutions, Howard University, and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
Please visit OCR’s website for more information about our activities or to find out about filing a complaint.
Melanie Fontes Rainer