Feds strengthen anti-discrimination health rules

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By Danielle Ray
Kentucky Health News

The Department of Health and Human Services issued rules Friday in an effort to ensure equality in health care for women, the disabled and people who speak English as a second language.

The new provisions protect women from discrimination not only in the health coverage they obtain but in the health services they seek from providers. They also prohibit denial of health care or health coverage based on a person’s sex, including discrimination based on pregnancy, gender identity and sex stereotyping.

The rule also requires providers to take reasonable steps to provide communication access to people with limited English proficiency. In addition, it requires that providers make electronic information and newly constructed or altered facilities accessible to individuals with disabilities, including providing auxiliary aids and services.

HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell called the rule “a key step toward realizing equity within our health care system.” She said in an agency news release that it reinforces the central goal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, to improve access to quality health care.

The rule covers any health program or activity that receives federal funding, such as providers who accept Medicare or Medicaid; any health program that HHS administers; and federal- and state-based health insurance marketplaces and insurers that participate in them.

The new rule implements Section 1557 of the 2010 health-reform law, which is the first federal civil-rights law to prohibit discrimination based on sex in federally-funded health programs. Previously, civil rights laws enforced by the agency’s civil rights office barred discrimination based only on race, color, national origin, disability, and age.

The rule does not resolve whether discrimination on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation status alone is a form of sex discrimination under the reform law. However, the provisions leave room for the agency’s civil-rights office to evaluate complaints that allege sex discrimination related to a person’s sexual orientation to determine if they can be considered sex stereotyping, which the rule prohibits. In cases where religious freedom would be violated, health-care providers are not required to follow the regulation.

A summary of the new rule can be accessed here.

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