HHS Office of Civil Rights Settles with MD, VA Hospitals to Allow Patients Visits from Clergy

Irish Catholic rosary
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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced on Tuesday that it has reached agreement with hospitals in Virginia and Maryland to change policies to allow clergy to visit hospitalized patients during the coronavirus pandemic.

The complaints that were settled include virus protocol at the University of Maryland medical system – Medstar Health — a network of 10 hospitals in that state.

A married couple who were severely injured in a car accident in August and were hospitalized in that system in grave condition were denied clergy visitation to receive religious sacraments during end-of-life circumstances.

At Mary Washington Health Care in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in July a mother who tested positive for the virus was separated from her newborn and the hospital denied her request for an in-hospital baptism for the infant consistent with her Catholic faith.

“Let’s not forget what many people live for and an integral part of many people’s lives is their expressions of faith and they seek spiritual support and comfort, especially in times of crisis,” Roger Severino, director of OCR, said on a conference call on Tuesday with reporters.

“What these resolutions show is that you can safely treat the patient without neglecting the whole patient  — that’s mind, body and soul,” Severino said. “So no part of the patient should be neglected.”

OCR also released an announcement on Tuesday that explained how the settlements took place:

Acting in partnership with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), OCR provided technical assistance to MSMHC and MedStar Health System based on CMS guidance – PDF explaining adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy in hospital visitations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The MedStar Health System updated its visitation policy for all ten hospitals under its purview, including MSMHC, so that patients in COVID-19 positive units or sections, as well as non-COVID units, will be able to freely exercise their religion by receiving religious services from the religious leaders of their choice at any reasonable time, as long as the visit does not disrupt care.

Visiting clergy must follow hospital safety policies, including screening for COVID-19 infection, must follow proper infection prevention practices (such as hand washing/sanitizing, and physical distancing), and must wear a face mask. In consultation with MWHC’s infection control specialists, OCR reached a resolution with the parties that balances patient needs for compassionate spiritual support and the hospital’s practical need to protect staff, patients, and visitors from infection.

Under the new policy, patients in COVID units will have access to clergy in compassionate care situations, including end-of-life situations. MWHC will allow visits by clergy in COVID units, provided that the clergy member first completes scheduled infection control training offered by MWHC, the clergy member uses fit-tested PPE provided by MWHC, and the clergy member signs an acknowledgement of the risks associated with visiting a COVID patient.

The agreement also provides for emergency end-of-life visits from clergy, which would require a 14-day isolation after visiting with a sick and dying patient.

Severino said they also put in place protocol at the hospitals to allow persons with disabilities to have a designated support person who would be allowed to visit. He gave as an example people with severe autism who rely on a trusted caregiver.

“This resolution demonstrates the dedication that this administration has to address every aspect of Covid-19 — again, not leaving anybody behind,” Severino said.

To see MedStar Health System’s updated policies, please visit https://www.medstarhealth.org/mhs/about-medstar/covid-19-info/visitor-policies-and-guidance-during-covid-19/.

To see Mary Washington Healthcare’s updated policies, please visit: https://www.marywashingtonhealthcare.com/COVID-19/Visitation-During-COVID-19.aspx.

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