As the new Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (OCR), it is an honor for me to join in solidarity with people worldwide to show support for people living with HIV/AIDS, commit to the fight to end HIV/AIDS, and to remember those who have died from an AIDS-related illness. Founded in 1988, World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day. Since that time, there have been great strides in care and treatment that enable a growing number of people to live long and full lives with HIV/AIDS. People who remain in care and keep an undetectable viral load (or stay virally suppressed) can live longer and have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to their partners. Despite these and other advances, people living with HIV/AIDS still face many challenges, including stigma and discrimination. OCR has worked tirelessly with our partners to protect these communities from discrimination by enforcing civil rights laws and getting positive outcomes through resolution agreements and corrective actions to ensure people can receive health care free from discrimination.
OCR has long been active in trying to address discrimination against people with HIV. For example, OCR’s Information is Powerful Medicine campaign, launched in 2013, educates HIV+ people about their health information privacy rights, including access to your medical records, under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In our enforcement work, OCR conducts investigations under HIPAA, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act to ensure equal access to health coverage, health care, and human services for qualified individuals with HIV. In 2016, OCR coordinated national compliance reviews of 12 hospitals – one hospital in each of the 12 cities most impacted by HIV/AIDS. These compliance reviews led to improvements in how each hospital ensures: (1) meaningful access for HIV-positive individuals who are limited English proficient; (1) equal access for HIV-positive individuals to programs and services; and (3) safeguards for the privacy and security of individuals’ health information and their rights with regard to that information.
Other examples of OCR’s HIV nondiscrimination enforcement efforts include the following:
- In February 2021, OCR and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan entered into a resolution agreement with Great Lakes Surgical Associates. The agreement resolved the complaint of a 45-year-old male, Medicare beneficiary, who reported that his doctor referred him to Great Lakes for bariatric surgery to address his high blood pressure and diabetes. Great Lakes, however, allegedly refused to provide the bariatric surgery or to even evaluate the complainant for surgery, due to his positive HIV status.
- In October 2019, OCR secured corrective action and resolved a complaint against the Florida Orthopaedic Institute. The complaint alleged that the Florida Orthopaedic Institute unlawfully cancelled a surgery due to the 58-year-old male patient’s HIV-positive status. After OCR provided notice of the complaint, Florida Orthopaedic Institute allegedly retaliated against the patient by banning him from the practice.
- In September 2017, OCR entered into a resolution agreement with Heritage Hills Living & Rehabilitation Center, an Oklahoma skilled nursing facility. The agreement resolved a complaint which alleged that Heritage Hills discharged a seriously ill patient from its facility due her HIV-positive status.
- In August 2014, OCR entered into a resolution agreement with Williamston House, a North Carolina assisted living facility. The agreement resolved a complaint alleging that Williamston House denied admission to an individual based on his HIV-positive status.
- In July 2014, OCR entered into an agreement with Winston C. San Agustin, a California surgeon who intentionally discrimination against HIV positive patients. After an investigation, OCR announced that the surgeon’s federal funding had been terminated after he declined to voluntarily resolve its finding that he intentionally discriminated against an HIV-positive patient by refusing to provide much need back surgery. OCR’s violation letter was cited in the order of the HHS Departmental Appeals Board, who concluded that the surgeon violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Through this work, OCR was able to get this treatment for patients.
In my previous role as the New York State Department of Health's Executive Deputy Commissioner, I was a strong advocate for bolstering the state’s programs, services, and activities relating to HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and hepatitis C. Now as the OCR Director, I am continuing this important work by enforcing civil rights laws to ensure that people living with HIV receive equal access to health care and human services.
Until we reach a Worlds Aids Day where HIV/AIDS is entirely eradicated, OCR will uphold and protect the law to ensure that everyone is protected from illegal discrimination.
To learn more about civil rights and health information privacy laws that HHS OCR enforces, and to find information on filing a complaint, visit us at www.hhs.gov/ocr. Follow HHS OCR on Twitter at twitter.com/HHSOCR.
If you believe that you have been discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, religion, or sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), you can file a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights, electronically through the Office for Civil Rights Complaint Portal, available at https://ocrportal.hhs.gov/ocr/portal/lobby.jsf, or by mail or phone at: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 200 Independence Avenue SW., Room 509F, HHH Building, Washington, DC 20201, 1–800–868–1019, 800–537–7697 (TDD). Complaint forms are available at: https://www.hhs.gov/ocr/office/file/index.html.