Health Care

HHS settles discrimination complaint from bearded medical student

HHS’ Office for Civil Rights resolved two religious discrimination complaints against hospitals, the agency said Tuesday.

Staten Island University Hospital in New York paused medical student rotations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, later requiring returning students to fit-test and wear N95 respirator masks when serving patients. It asked a returning student to shave his beard to ensure he could wear an N95 mask correctly, even though he passed an N95 fit test with his beard before the COVID-19 outbreak.

After the student told the hospital that his religious beliefs prevented him from shaving his beard, the hospital told him he still couldn’t return until he shaved his beard and took another fit test. Fearing he wouldn’t be able to complete his training and become a doctor, the student asked OCR for help.

According to the agency, the hospital agreed to allow the student to wear a power air-purifying respirator—PAPR—instead of an N95 mask. PAPRs offer greater protection than N95 masks but cost more.

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

In another complaint, Prince George’s Hospital Center of the University of Maryland Medical System denied a woman’s request to let a priest visit her husband after he was critically injured in a motorcycle accident, citing the visitor exclusion policy it adopted in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Despite being willing to wear any necessary personal protective equipment, the priest was turned away by the hospital,” OCR said in a press release.

After discussing the issue with the agency, Prince George’s Hospital Center allowed a priest to visit the patient. UMMS also updated its visitation policy to allow “patients in COVID-19 positive units or sections will be able to practice their religion with clergy visitations in compassionate care situations including end-of-life,” the agency said in a statement.

OCR has worked with states and providers to address a wide range of civil rights complaints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, including discrimination based on disability. The agency also threw out an Obama-era regulation banning discrimination against patients based on gender identity.

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