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December 16, 2020
Contact: HHS Press Office
[email protected]

OCR Facilitates Safe Clergy Access for Patients at Mt. Sinai Hospital During COVID-19

Today, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announces the resolution of a religious discrimination complaint, thus ensuring clergy access to patients for religious purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic for the entire Mt. Sinai Health System in New York (Mt. Sinai).

On August 5, 2020, a Jewish community advocacy organization filed a complaint with OCR alleging that several hospitals in various hospital systems in New York, including Mt. Sinai in Manhattan, were denying Jewish patients access to clergy in both COVID and non-COVID units. In one instance at Mt. Sinai, the complaint alleged that a Jewish patient was unable to obtain access to Kosher food; after asking for his rabbi to come to help the patient locate Kosher food, the hospital said that his rabbi could not visit due to concerns about COVID-19. Another Jewish patient at Mt. Sinai was denied access to a spiritual care volunteer after she gave birth to a stillborn baby and requested a spiritual care volunteer for spiritual comfort. The organization explained to OCR that religious visitation was important to their community because rabbis provide assistance with prayer rituals, including end-of-life rituals; spiritual comfort; translation services for those members of their community who do not speak English; and with other needs specific to their faith tradition.

In conjunction with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), OCR's Conscience and Religious Freedom Division (CRFD) offered Mt. Sinai technical assistance to ensure that its visitation policy was consistent with best practices under federal guidance, which Mt. Sinai accepted. Mt. Sinai clarified that, although its visitation policy did not say so explicitly, one of the two visitors permitted to visit a patient each day could be a clergy member. Mt. Sinai then updated its visitation policy to include that clarification. Additionally, the updated visitation policy states that there is an exemption to out of state quarantine requirements for end-of-life visitations provided that proper precautions are taken. This allows clergy to be with patients in imminent end-of-life circumstances, even if they travel to Mt. Sinai from out of state.

The Mt. Sinai visitation policy applies to all seven of its hospital locations, including Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Under the updated visitation policy, visiting clergy are to comply with the safety policies in place, which include COVID-19 screening, proper use of hand sanitizer and hand washing, and wearing of an approved face mask.  Visitors are required to visit during designated hours, unless an exception, such as an imminent end-of-life situation, applies.

Roger Severino, Director of OCR said, "We commend Mt. Sinai Health System for modifying its policy to clarify that patients can receive safe clergy access for religious purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic." Severino concluded, "We applaud the hospital for ensuring that it will treat the needs of the body without sacrificing the needs of the soul."

To see Mt. Sinai Health System's updated policies, please visit https://www.mountsinai.org/about/covid19/patient-updates

For more information about how OCR is protecting conscience and religious freedom during COVID-19, please visit https://www.hhs.gov/conscience/religious-freedom/covid-19/index.html.

For more information about how OCR is protecting civil rights during COVID-19, please visit https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-providers/civil-rights-covid19/index.html.

For more information related to HIPAA and COVID-19, please visit: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/hipaa-covid19/index.html.

To learn more about non-discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age, and disability; conscience and religious freedom; and health information privacy laws, and to file a complaint with OCR, please visit www.hhs.gov/ocr.

Follow OCR on Twitter at @HHSOCR

Note: All HHS press releases, fact sheets and other news materials are available at https://www.hhs.gov/news.
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Last revised: December 15, 2020

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