Orbon Alija/Getty Images

HHS Finalizes Religious Rights Rules Protecting Patient Care Access

The final rule rescinds a 2019 statute that HHS said impeded patient care access under the guise of conscience and religious rights.

HHS has finalized the last piece of the puzzle to restore the government’s process for handling complaints of conscience and religious discrimination, which the agency said will improve patient access to care while still protecting the religious liberties of healthcare providers.

The final rule is the last step in rescinding parts of a 2019 policy that further bolstered moral and religious protections for healthcare workers, virtually making it easier for healthcare providers to claim a moral objection when administering healthcare to certain patients.

This 2024 final rule, effective March 11, clarifies the process by which the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces federal conscience laws and outlines patient and provider rights and obligations under federal conscience laws.

“Today’s rule is another promise delivered by President Biden, working to strengthen conscience protections and advance health care, free from discrimination,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “The Final Rule clarifies protections for people with religious or moral objections while also ensuring access to care for all in keeping with the law.”

Notably, the 2024 final rule clarifies that the conscience statute applies to more than just providers; it applies to patients, too. Said otherwise, patients’ conscience and religious liberties are protected and cannot be denied care for such reasons.

The final rule also outlines various specificities to the process by which OCR would investigate a claim, noting that investigations will be “prompt”; that entities that fail to provide OCR with information within a reasonable time frame will have that weighed negatively against the entity; and that HHS may refer a claim to the Department of Justice when necessary. The final rule also lays out OCR’s enforcement tools.

Additionally, the final rule outlines ways in which entities can ensure compliance with federal conscience rules, including by providing public and patient education about conscience and religious rights.

This final rule comes as part of Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support of Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.

The 2019 rule, which went on to be blocked in three federal district courts, loosened definitions for moral and religious protections, created new compliance rules, and retooled the enforcement mechanisms for some religious protections for healthcare workers. The 2019 final rule made it easier for healthcare workers to claim religious protections while treating patients, such as refusing to treat an LGBTQ+ patient, HHS said.

The agency explained that this most recent final rule still protects the conscience and religious freedoms of healthcare providers. However, by rescinding the 2019 final rule, HHS is restoring OCR’s process for investigating infringements on conscience and religious rights.

“Protecting conscience rights and ensuring access to health care are critically important, no matter who you are, where you live, who you love, or your faith and conscience. Our office has statutory mandates to protect people across the country and takes this responsibility very seriously,” OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer said in the press release. “We are proud of today’s rule, which advances conscience protections, access to health care, and puts our health care system on notice that we will enforce the law. As a law enforcement agency, we are committed to this work.”

Next Steps

Dig Deeper on Patient data access

xtelligent Health IT and EHR