HHS issues final rule to improve health equity

The federal government has taken a firm stand against discrimination, issuing a final rule that promotes health equity and takes aim at longstanding disparities within healthcare.

The rule, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights, implements the Affordable Care Act's discrimination prohibition, banning hospitals that receive federal funds from discriminating against transgender people, those with limited English skills and the disabled.

"A central goal of the Affordable Care Act is to help all Americans access quality, affordable healthcare. Today's announcement is a key step toward realizing equity within our healthcare system and reaffirms this Administration's commitment to giving every American access to the healthcare they deserve," HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said in a statement.

Along with the broader general discrimination prohibitions in the ACA section, the rule mentions specific protected classes of people:

Those who have limited English proficiency (LEP): Hospitals must reasonably accommodate people who may need language assistance, according to the rule. The final rule clarifies exactly what accommodations hospitals need to make for such patients, including clearly defining what makes an interpreter "qualified."

Disabled people: The final rule similarly requires hospitals to communicate with and accomodate disabled patients, drawing heavily on the Americans with Disabilities Act's definitions and standards. Under the rule, hospitals must provide necessary services for anyone with sensory, manual or speaking impairments and cannot segregate disabled people unnecessarily.

Sex/gender/sexual orientation: Like the proposed rule issued last year, the final rule does not clarify whether sexual orientation is covered under anti-sex discrimination rules, leaving such issues to the Office of Civil Rights to handle on a case-by-case basis. The rule does not prohibit sex-segregated toilets, lockers or shower facilities. However, it bans hospitals from excluding anyone from a facility based on gender identity. Lack of knowledge on LGBT issues in general and transgender patients in particular has been a major problem within healthcare.

To learn more:
- read the final rule in the Federal Register (.pdf)
- here's the statement