The findings of a recent survey at a women's hospital in New Mexico are in the process of being referred to HHS' Office for Civil Rights after allegations of racial profiling were raised, state health officials confirmed.
The survey of Lovelace Women's Hospital in Albuquerque was completed last week. While CMS has yet to finalize the report, state officials have said that the agency plans to forward the findings to the civil rights division to determine if any practices at the hospital violate federal regulations.
Such an investigation could take several months.
The hospital denies that extra scrutiny was given to pregnant Native American patients amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit some tribal communities in the American Southwest particularly hard. In New Mexico, just over half of the cases are among Native Americans.
State officials called for an investigation after the online publications New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported that several unidentified clinicians at the hospital alleged that pregnant Native American women were singled out for COVID-19 testing and separated from newborns after delivery while their test results were pending.
The clinicians said regardless of symptoms, the women were designated as under investigation for coronavirus based on their appearance and whether their ZIP code was on a list of those that included tribal communities around the state.
The state investigators who conducted the survey on behalf of the federal Medicaid agency found what was described as "noncompliance" with certain conditions that govern patient rights and participation, said David Morgan, a spokesman for the state Health Department.
While the hospital is awaiting the report from federal officials, Lovelace spokeswoman Serena Pettes said there was no secret policy for screening pregnant women at the hospital.
"Every patient, visitor, provider and staff member are screened for COVID-19," she said.
Screening is based on guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said. That includes asking incoming patients a series of questions that cover whether they have been exposed, if they have symptoms, if they might be considered among vulnerable and at-risk populations or if they are from or have traveled to COVID-19 hot spots.
If the answer is yes to any of the questions, patients are tested. For new mothers, Pettes said they can sign a waiver and either have their babies remain with them while they await their COVID-19 test results or the infant can be placed in the neonatal intensive care unit.
During the period in question, the hospital says 15 pregnant women came in for delivery, screened positive and had a COVID-19 test. Eight of the women identified as Native American. Officials said three of the 15 women — one of whom identified as Native American — chose to have their baby cared for in the NICU while awaiting results.
"We conducted an internal review which found no violation of ethics or misconduct and that our process was in compliance with both the New Mexico Department of Health and CDC guidelines," Pettes said. "In addition, we have been working with the state as they review in detail our process and certainly welcome and look forward to their findings."
Hospital employees told New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica that documents were removed from nursing stations, including COVID-19 screening and treatment protocols.
Lovelace will have 14 days to respond once CMS issues the report. It will be up to the federal agency to review the response and make a determination on possible sanctions if any violations are found.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and Native American advocacy groups voiced concerns when the allegations were first leveled.
Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said while several pueblos and the Navajo Nation have been hit hard by the coronavirus, not all tribes have high prevalence of cases. She said the allegations suggest there's an unfair assumption that all Native Americans in New Mexico have COIVD-19.