HHS resolves dispute over right to clergy in hospital

shutterstock 1664489512 Department of Health and Human Services at the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building. | Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock

The Department of Health and Human Services has resolved another case of patients' access to clergy at hospitals, during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it resolved a religious discrimination complaint with Mr. Sinai Health System, which operates seven hospitals in New York.

A Jewish advocacy group filed a formal complaint with OCR on Aug. 5, alleging that Jewish patients at several hospitals in the Mt. Sinai system were unable to have clergy visit them in both COVID and non-COVID units during the pandemic.

OCR said it reached out and offered technical assistance to the hospital system, which clarified that its visitation policies allowed for a clergy member. The hospital updated its policies to make this clear, OCR said.

"We applaud the hospital for ensuring that it will treat the needs of the body without sacrificing the needs of the soul," OCR director Roger Severino said.

According to the office, the complaint was filed on Aug. 5. One patient asked for his rabbi to visit, to help him find Kosher food; the hospital told him the rabbi could not visit due to COVID-19 concerns.

In another instance, a Jewish patient requested a "spiritual care volunteer" for comfort after giving birth to a stillborn baby, but was denied.

Clergy visits are important, the advocacy group insisted, for providing end-of-life religious prayers, spiritual care and comfort, and translation services.

Additionally, the hospital's new policy allows for clergy to visit from out of state without having to quarantine, for end-of-life situations. All clergy must take safety precautions including screening for the virus and wearing approved face masks.

Access to clergy has resulted in the OCR resolving several complaints during the pandemic. Earlier in the year, the office resolved complaints in Virginia and Maryland that resulted in hospital systems changing their visitation policies to allow for clerical visits.

In one of those cases, the Diocese of Arlington intervened on behalf of a dying Catholic COVID patient who was denied access to a priest because of hospital visitation policies. The OCR worked with the hospital to allow a priest inside to visit the patient before death.

After another intervention, the diocese helped change the hospital's visitation policies for a surgery patient in the ICU ward who requested access to a priest.

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