The gist? The law prohibits many, but not all, grounds for discrimination against potential patients. Race, religion, sex, and disability are among the most uniformly protected categories, whereas less than half of states prohibit health care discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, for example. Moreover, the rejection of patients because they smoke, play contact sports, or engage in other risky behavior is legally within the realm of physician discretion, as is discrimination based on other characteristics not protected by law.
So what about obesity discrimination by healthcare providers? Perhaps one of the last comparatively socially acceptable bases for discrimination, weight has not traditionally been treated as a protected category under civil rights laws. But one possible strategy is to consider the scope of prohibitions against disability discrimination. This is actually a pretty unsettled area of law – but the bottom line, to the extent there is one, is that rejection of an overweight or obese patient who is neither impaired to the extent of being disabled nor regarded as disabled would be legally permissible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rejection of an obese patient who is disabled could also be permissible, so long as the disability was not the reason for the rejection. The only problem would come up if a disabled obese patient were to be rejected on that basis, and could prove that to be the case. So this may not be the most helpful approach to address obesity discrimination in the healthcare context, and in my opinion, reliance on simple medical professionalism and the commitment to caring for those in need has much more to offer.