Friday, February 6, 2015

From the Archives: Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights

From the Archives: Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights

Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights
An Interview with Frank Musumici, Investigator with the Office of Civil Rights of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

Do you know your civil rights?

Do you understand these rights?

Do you know where to ask for help if your civil rights are violated? 

The Hope Principle. Bauhaus Rendering. Image by Alina Oswald.
The Hope Principle. Image by Alina Oswald.

A safe place to start, especially for those living with HIV/AIDS, is to call Frank Musumici, Investigator with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Hoboken native, Musumici has worked with the local HIV community for many years. Before joining the OCR team in 2004, he was a regional health administrator. His job enabled him to get to know the local HIV community while giving presentations to help provide funding for several small HIV organizations. It was during one of these presentations that the enthusiasm and passion with which he talked to the audience caught the attention of Michael Carter, OCR Regional Manager for Region 2 (representing New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands). Soon afterwards, Musumici became part of the OCR team.

The OCR enforces the laws that prohibit discrimination against race, disability, color, age, religion, national origin and sex. It protects individuals from discrimination in health and social services programs (from hospitals and Medicaid/Medicare to nursing homes and nutrition programs) that receive money or assistance from the DHHS. Although the OCR deals with denied or delayed services because of disability (HIV is considered disability) many people call in with various types of complaints. In this case, the calls are redirected to investigators who can best be of help. The OCR investigators work with complaints that are less than 180 days old. Musumici focuses on HIV-related issues, but the department deals with a variety of issues, from quality of services (which are redirected to the Department of Health) and immigration, to translations. Most OCR investigators are attorneys. Many of them are bi- or multi-lingual, which comes in handy when dealing with individuals who know little or no English. Investigators call these cases LEP, or Limited English Prevalence, cases.

Musumici encourages people to call if they need help, regardless of the type of their complaint. To make sure of that, he provides his phone number-a direct line-because he wants people to know that if they have questions they have someone on their side, an agent whose job is to assist them and protect their rights. That's why, upon his becoming an OCR investigator, Musumici helped start an outreach plan that enables investigators to go out and inform the community about the services HHS/OCR provides. "I'd like to put a physical face to our agency," he explains, "so that [individuals who need OCR's help] will know that they can come to us."

Individuals can contact HHS/OCR by phone, in writing or online. The website provides a complaint form which can be completed and mailed in. The complaint form requires basic information about the complaint: what, when, where and how it happened and why does the applicant think it happened. Once the OCR department receives it, the complaint goes to the department managers from where it is assigned to one of the investigators. Within 30 days from receiving the complaint form, OCR investigators follow-up for more information regarding the incident. In the same time, the facilities where the incident took place are directly interested in solving the problem because they receive funds from the DHHS. "In my experience," Musumici says, "ten out of ten times when we call, [the facilities] are very responsive. They do everything possible to make sure that [the incident] doesn't happen again."

Through his outreach program, Musumici emphasizes the importance of knowing the "ABCs" of civil rights. "If [individuals] know that they have somewhere to go in terms of discussing an act of discrimination against them, I think it empowers them to be strong and go on. We need people to know that [the information they provide] helps investigators help others." When someone contacts an OCR investigator with a complaint, that individual enables the investigator to follow through. As a result, the hospital where the complaint originates takes all possible measures to sustain and solve the problem so that it will never happen again. The process empowers that someone to assist many others who will be going into that hospital. "I want people to know," Musumici concludes, "that this is a great opportunity to empower themselves to do good."

Thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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