Black History Month; Recognizing Contributions and Continuing the Fight Against Health Inequities

As we celebrate Black History Month, we reflect on the role of my office, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in promoting racial equity and maintaining commitment to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. to ensure non-discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin. This month and throughout the year, our office recognizes the countless contributions of African Americans, the historic fight for equality, and future work to address African American health disparities.

President Biden reflected on his commitment to equity and diversity in a Proclamation on National Black History Month, 2024. The president recognized the enormous contributions and advancements made by African Americans and that “black history is American history.”

At HHS, OCR contributes to this mission by leading the Department’s work on nondiscrimination and working to promote improved health access and outcomes for people of color and other underserved communities. This is reflected in our persistent application of federal privacy and civil rights laws to safeguard our services from discrimination, bias and barriers.

Some of OCR’s recent efforts include:

Strengthening non-discrimination in health care

OCR issued a proposed rule revising Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (Section 1557) that includes strong provisions to protect people from discrimination and supports the Biden-Harris Administration’s priority of promoting health equity and civil rights. Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or disability in certain health programs or activities and is one of the government’s most powerful tools to ensure nondiscriminatory access to health care. OCR is working to finalize the rule.

Application

Black Maternal Health: OCR is investigating allegations of racism and discrimination at hospitals across the country, including in one of the richest facilities in Los Angeleswhere a local woman died due to the care she had received during her pregnancy.

environmental justice

Lowndes County, Alabama: On May 4, 2023, OCR and the Department of Justice announced a tentative settlement agreement in their environmental justice investigation into the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) regarding the discriminatory administration of a disposal system program. of wastewater. The investigation in Lowndes County, Alabama, a predominantly black county with a high poverty rate, revealed that ADPH had not taken significant steps to remedy sanitary conditions. This came despite awareness of residents’ exposure to raw sewage, a burden that led to disproportionate impacts on the health and finances of the county’s Black residents, who could face potential loss of property or even criminal sanctions if they could not remedy them.

The agreement was reached after an 18-month investigation. Under the settlement agreement, ADPH will be required to develop equitable and safe wastewater management and disposal services, as well as raise awareness about the health impacts of exposure to wastewater.

The Agreement requires ADPH to address health disparities and improve health outcomes by ensuring compliance with federal civil rights laws and compliance with the terms of the agreement.

“Environmental justice is a public health issue, and where you live should not determine whether you get sick from basic environmental hazards that other white, wealthy communities do not face,” said Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of the US Office for Civil Rights. Department of Health and Human Services. “We are pleased that the Alabama Department of Public Health has committed to taking immediate and long-term steps to protect the health of Lowndes County residents. “This community has long been at the center of the fight for civil rights, and today’s resolution is yet another testament to the ongoing work that is the pursuit of racial justice.”

Eliminating language barriers

As part of this Administration’s accessibility and inclusion efforts, including through the responsibilities outlined in President Biden’s Executive Orders and the HHS Equity Action Plan, OCR is working to ensure that all people have meaningful access to health and human services programs and activities regardless of race. ethnicity or linguistic ability. This issue is of great importance to OCR, as racial minorities are more likely to speak a language other than English at home, and communication barriers often result in negative health outcomes, including increased morbidity and mortality. mortality. OCR is leading HHS on language access by launching and organizing the department-wide Language Access Steering Committee, which is currently overseeing the implementation of Language Access Plan updates for Personnel Divisions and Operational Divisions. from HHS.

  • As part of this effort, the Language Access Steering Committee is overseeing the implementation of updated Language Access Plans for all Personnel Divisions and Operational Divisions that comprise HHS. The updates made to the Language Access Plans that comprise the Plans will improve and ensure the quality and accuracy of language access services in HHS-funded health and human services programs and activities for persons with limited English proficiency and persons with disabilities.
  • OCR also publishes an annual progress report based on the language access work being done across HHS. The annual report tracks compliance activity and progress of the Language Access Steering Committee.

Ensure equal access to telehealth

OCR and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division issued guidance on nondiscrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, and disability when accessing telehealth.

  • The guide explains legal obligations under Title VI, Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Provides information to healthcare providers about their nondiscrimination obligations and practical advice on how to provide accessible telehealth.

Strengthening the healthcare workforce to meet America’s diverse needs

Each summer, OCR continues a long-standing collaboration with the Association of American Medical Colleges to provide civil rights compliance training to pre-medical and pre-dental undergraduate students.

  • From June through August, OCR staff members provide training to approximately 1,000 students at colleges and universities across the country, including Historically Black Institutions, Howard University, and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Sciences.

If you or someone you know has experienced discrimination, you can file a complaint with HHS at: https://www.hhs.gov/ocr/complaints/index.html.

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