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Religious Complaints Against Hospitals Prompt HHS Warning (1)

July 21, 2020, 3:29 PM; Updated: July 21, 2020, 4:23 PM

Hospitals must continue to provide religious accommodations to their workers and patients during the pandemic, the HHS said Tuesday, resolving two complaints before its Office for Civil Rights.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ civil rights office resolved a complaint against the Staten Island University Hospital after a medical student was told he needed to shave his beard to wear an N95 mask and return to rotations. The student’s religion required that he not shave his beard, according to the complaint.

The agency also resolved a complaint against the Prince George’s Hospital Center of the University of Maryland Medical System after a patient was denied visitation from a priest.

The HHS’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) provided technical assistance to the Staten Island hospital, and the hospital provided the student with a powered air purifying respirator that provides greater protection from Covid-19 than an N95 mask, according to OCR.

“Accommodations like these avoid forcing people to choose between following their profession or following their faith,” OCR Director Roger Severino said in a statement on the Staten Island case. “Religious freedom and patient safety should both be preserved, even and especially during times of crisis.”

The OCR also provided technical assistance to the University of Maryland Medical System based on March guidancefrom the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that allows for patients to have access to chaplains or clergy.

Prince George’s Hospital Center allowed a priest to visit the patient, and the University of Maryland Medical System updated its visitation policies for all 13 of its hospitals to allow patients in Covid-19 units to receive visits from clergy in compassionate care situations. The medical system also modified its policies to allow people with disabilities to have access to support persons.

“Too many people have died alone during this crisis, but this resolution shows that hospitals can practice compassion and safety without sacrificing either,” Severino said in a statement.

(Updated with additional reporting in seventh paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Shira Stein in Washington at sstein@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com; Alexis Kramer at akramer@bloomberglaw.com

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