The Biden administration has unveiled a proposal to enhance protections against discrimination faced by individuals with disabilities when accessing government-funded healthcare programs or activities. This proposed rule, introduced by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR), addresses various aspects, including eliminating biases in medical treatment decisions and enhancing accessibility standards. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra emphasized the rule’s importance in ensuring equitable healthcare access. The proposal reflects legal developments related to disability discrimination and will be open for public comment for 60 days upon publication in the Federal Register on September 14, 2023.
The Biden administration has unveiled a new plan in a significant step to combat discrimination faced by people with disabilities when seeking care through government-funded healthcare programs or initiatives. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has released a proposal that aims to update the current anti-discrimination rules stated in Section 504, a legislation that was enacted in response to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Melanie Fontes Rainer, Director of OCR, expressed the timeliness and importance of this rule update in ensuring equitable access to healthcare and social services for people with disabilities across the United States. She emphasized the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to combating discrimination and improving healthcare access for all.
The proposed updates primarily focus on clarifying the obligations of organizations collaborating with HHS, addressing issues not explicitly covered in Section 504. Among the key provisions, the proposal ensures that medical decisions must not be influenced by biases, stereotypes, perceptions of individuals as burdens, or beliefs regarding the value of disabled individuals’ lives compared to those without disabilities. Additionally, any methods used to assess value for cost containment, quality improvement, or denial of services and benefits would be prohibited from devaluing individuals based on their disability.
The proposed updates also encompass various aspects, including enhancing web, mobile, and kiosk accessibility; establishing enforceable standards for accessible medical equipment; defining requirements for child welfare programs and activities; and emphasizing the need to provide services in the most suitable integrated settings for individuals with disabilities.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra underscored the significance of this proposed rule, emphasizing that it seeks to eliminate barriers faced by individuals with disabilities when accessing healthcare services. He pointed out that, despite being in 2023, some people with disabilities still need to travel long distances to access essential healthcare services, and this proposal aims to rectify that situation.
The proposed updates reflect changes in the legal landscape of disability discrimination, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, with sections covering areas such as service animals, mobility devices, and protection against retaliation and coercion.
This comprehensive 400-page proposed rule is scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on September 14. Following its publication, there will be a 60-day public comment period.
The OCR collaborated with the Administration for Community Living to develop this proposed rule. Alison Barkoff, the head of the agency, highlighted the importance of these updates in light of the spotlight that COVID-19 has shone on discrimination and barriers faced by individuals with disabilities when seeking care.
In early 2022, HHS issued guidance reaffirming providers’ obligations to provide care to individuals with disabilities, regardless of the challenges posed by the pandemic.