Today, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announces the resolution of a religious discrimination complaint against Prince George’s Hospital Center of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) after UMMS adopted new policies ensuring clergy access to patients for religious purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In June 2020, OCR’s Conscience and Religious Freedom Division received a complaint from Susanna Marcus, alleging she had requested a visit from a priest for her critically injured husband, Sidney Marcus, which was denied by Prince George’s Hospital Center. In late May 2020, Susanna and Sidney Marcus were in a major car accident requiring an emergency medevac to Prince George’s Hospital Center. Because Sidney’s injuries were more serious, the couple was separated and Sydney was placed in the intensive care unit. Since Sidney’s health continued to decline, Susanna Marcus asked a local priest to visit and pray for Sidney at the hospital. Despite being willing to wear any necessary personal protective equipment, the priest was turned away by the hospital based on a visitor exclusion policy it had adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Acting in partnership with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), OCR provided technical assistance to UMMS, which oversees Prince George’s Hospital Center, based on CMS guidance concerning hospital visitations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidance provides that “facilities must ensure patients have adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy.”
Shortly after OCR entered into discussions with UMMS, Prince George’s Hospital Center ensured that Sidney Marcus could freely exercise his religion by permitting him to receive a visit from a priest, who enabled him to receive the Catholic religious sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick.
In addition, UMMS updated its visitation policy for all thirteen hospitals under its purview, so that 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. Patients in non-COVID units may freely exercise their religion by receiving clergy visitation at any reasonable time, as long as the visit does not disrupt clinical care. Visiting clergy must follow hospital safety policies, including screening for COVID-19 infection, such as temperature checks, and must be willing to sign a written waiver.
UMMS also modified their policies to allow for a robust protection of people with disabilities who need support persons as they receive care. This follows OCR’s recent resolution with the State of Connecticut after the state issued an executive order regarding non-visitation policies to ensure that people with disabilities are not denied reasonable access to needed support persons.
“The Trump Administration has made it a priority to defend Americans’ right to practice their faith, at all times and especially during this pandemic,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “As our work with the University of Maryland Medical System shows, we can deliver healthcare, combat COVID-19, and protect religious freedom all at the same time.”
Roger Severino, Director of OCR said, “We applaud the University of Maryland Medical System for working to save lives while respecting what people live for, which for many includes the exercise of their faith.” Severino added, “Too many people have died alone during this crisis, but this resolution shows that hospitals can practice compassion and safety without sacrificing either.”
To see University of Maryland Medical System’s updated policies, please visit: https://www.umms.org/ummc/coronavirus/patient-safety/temporary-visitor-restrictions.
For more information about how OCR is protecting civil rights during COVID-19, please visit https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-providers/civil-rights-covid19/index.html.
For more information related to HIPAA and COVID-19, please visit: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/hipaa-covid19/index.html.
To learn more about non-discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age, and disability; conscience and religious freedom; and health information privacy laws, and to file a complaint with OCR, please visit www.hhs.gov/ocr.
Follow OCR on Twitter at @HHSOCR.