The Department of Justice’s July 29, 2013 announcement that it is suing Dr. Hal Brown and Primary Care of the Treasure Coast of Vero Beach, Florida (PCTC) for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating and retaliating against two deaf patients reminds physicians, clinics, hospitals and other health industry providers, their landlords, and other vendors to tighten their understanding, practices of federal and state disability discrimination laws to avoid getting nailed for improper discrimination. Following on the Department of Health & Human Service’s recently announced exclusion of a physician that illegally discriminated against a HIV-positive patient, health care providers are on notice that Federal officials are gunning for health care providers who illegally discriminate against patients and others with disabilities.
With the Justice Department, HHS and others targeting discrimination in the health care industry, physicians and their practices, clinics, hospitals and other private and public health care providers, and their landlords and other vendors should update their understanding of disability discrimination responsibilities and exposures, and then review and tighten policies, practices, workforce training and oversight, and other risk management and compliance practice to help prevent and mitigate exposures to disability and other discrimination claims.
Health Care Providers & Industry Under Fire For Disability Discrimination
While the heavy emphasis generally placed upon the enforcement of disability laws by the Obama Administration has heightened the risks of all U.S. businesses, health care providers are particularly at risk to disability discrimination liability as a result of the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative of the Justice Department and related health industry disability enforcement initiatives of HHS and other federal agencies.
Health care provider, like other U.S. businesses, face sweeping responsibilities under the various federal laws such as the public accommodation and other disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA, Section 504, the Civil Rights Act and various other laws. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act generally requires recipients of Medicare, Medicaid, HUD, Department of Education, welfare and most other federal assistance programs funds including health care, education, housing services providers, state and local governments to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs, services, or activities receiving federal financial assistance.
The ADA extends the prohibition against disability discrimination to private providers and other businesses as well as state and local governments including but not limited to health care providers reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid or various other federal programs. Rather, the ADA requirements and disability discrimination prohibitions generally apply to all U.S. health care and other businesses even if they do not receive federal financial assistance. Under the ADA, health care providers and other covered businesses generally have a duty other to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to their programs, services or activities. In many instances, these federal discrimination laws both prohibit discrimination and require health care and other regulated businesses to put in place reasonable accommodations needed to ensure that their services are accessible and available to persons with disabilities.
Specifically under the ADA:
- The public accommodation provisions generally both prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities when delivering health care or other services, as well as require health industry and other businesses to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities unless the health care provider proves its actions are defensible under an exception to these general rules.
- The employment discrimination provisions generally prohibit health care industry and other employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with a disability and require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled workers unless the health care provider can prove that its conduct qualifies under one of the allowable exceptions to the general prohibition against discrimination.
- The anti-retaliation rules prohibit retaliation against an individual because he opposes an act that is unlawful under the ADA or because he made a charge, testified, assisted or participated in any way in an investigation, proceeding or hearing under the ADA. These provisions also make it unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any individual exercising their rights protected by the ADA.
Meanwhile the Civil Rights Act and other laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin, race, sex, age, religion and various other grounds. These federal rules impact almost all public and private health care providers as well as a broad range housing and related service providers.
Justice Department ADA Suit Against Brown & PCTC
The ADA lawsuit against Dr. Brown and PCTC comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s Celebration of the 23rd Anniversary of the ADA last week and is an example of one of a growing number of lawsuits and other actions against health care providers resulting from the Justice Department “Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative” and related Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) enforcement efforts focusing on ensuring access to health care for individuals with disabilities.
The Department of Justice suit charges Dr. Brown and PCTC with violating the public accommodation and anti-retaliation provisions of ADA by discriminating against a deaf couple, Susan and James Liese by discriminating against a deaf couple, Susan and James Liese and then retaliating against the couple for engaging in activities protected under the ADA.
According to the Justice Department’s complaint, Dr. Brown and PCTC terminated Mr. and Mrs. Liese as patients because the couple pursued ADA claims against a hospital located next door to and affiliated with PCTC for not providing effective communication during an emergency surgery. The complaint alleges that after learning that the Lieses threatened the hospital with an ADA suit based on failure to provide sign language interpreter services, PCTC and Dr. Brown, who was the Liese’s primary doctor at PCTC, immediately terminated the Lieses as patients.
The Justice Department says this termination of the Lieses as patients violated the ADA. According to Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, “A person cannot be terminated as a patient because he or she asserts the right to effective communication at a hospital.”
While it remains to be seen if the Justice Department will be successful in its suit against Dr. Brown and PCTC, it has experienced significant success in disability discrimination actions against other health care providers.
Justice Department Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative Successes Growing
Justice Department suits like the ADA suit against Dr. Brown and PCTC are increasingly common and successful.
While the Justice Department across the years has prosecuted various health care providers for illegal discrimination under the ADA, it has turned up the heat with its nationwide Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative. According to the Justice Department, it intends that the prosecutions under the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative to focus and leverage the Justice Department’s resources together and send a clear message that disability discrimination in health care is illegal and unacceptable.
Since the Justice Department announced its Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative last year, for instance, the Justice Department has entered into 18 settlements under the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative. These include three agreements requiring health care providers to provide auxiliary aids and services, including sign language interpreters, to individuals who are deaf to ensure effective communication in health care settings including two settlements in the last month.
On June 27, 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee announced that Heart Center of Memphis has agreed to provide qualified sign language and oral interpreters as well as other auxiliary aids and services to patients who are deaf, have hearing loss or have speech disabilities to resolve a Justice Department complaint charging the Heart Center violated the ADA by telling a deaf patient that it was his responsibility to arrange a sign language interpreter for his appointment. After several unsuccessful attempts to get the Heart Center to provide a qualified sign language interpreter as required by law, the patient cancelled his appointment.
On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia announced it had reached a disability discrimination settlement agreement with Midtown Neurology P.C. The settlement resolved a complaint alleging that Midtown Neurology P.C. failed to provide, over multiple appointments, a qualified sign language interpreter for a patient who is deaf. At one appointment, the patient underwent a painful neurological test. Because there was no interpreter, the patient could not communicate that she was frightened and in pain, and that she wanted the doctor to stop the procedure. Under the agreement, Midtown Neurology P.C. will provide auxiliary aids and services, including qualified interpreters, to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing where necessary to ensure effective communication.
In previous months, the Justice Department also has reached settlement agreements resolving charges health care providers violated the ADA by failing to provide interpreters or other accommodations for deaf or other communication impaired patients with Burke Health and Rehabilitation Center (May 3, 2013); Monadnock Community Hospital (April 5, 2013); Manassas Health and Rehab Center (April 5, 2013); Gainesville Health and Rehab Center (April 5, 2013); the Center for Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine, Inc. (April 5, 2013); Northern Ohio Medical Specialists (April 5, 2013); Northshore University Healthsystems (June 28, 2012); Steven Senica, M.D., and Senica Bruneau, Ltd. (June 11, 2012); Trinity Regional Medical Center and Trinity Health Systems (March 29, 2012); Henry Ford Health System (February 1, 2012); and Cheshire Medical Center, Keene Health Alliance, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic D/B/A Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene (October 31, 2011)
In addition, the Justice Department also particularly is aggressive in prosecuting health care providers that discriminate against individuals with HIV. In the past six months, the Department reports it has reached five settlement agreements with medical providers to address HIV discrimination.
For instance, the Justice Department on July 26, 2013 announced that Barix Clinics, an organization that operates bariatric treatment facilities in Michigan and Pennsylvania, will pay $35,000 to victim-complainants and a $10,000 civil penalty, train its staff on the ADA and implement an anti-discrimination policy to settle Justice Department charges that Barix Clinics unlawfully refused to perform bariatric surgery on a man at its Langhorne, Pa., facility because he has HIV. The Department also determined that Barix Clinics cancelled bariatric surgery for another individual at its Ypsilanti, Michigan facility because he has HIV.
The Barix Clinic settlement added to a long list of earlier settlements of ADA charges stemming from discrimination against HIV patients including Glenbeigh (settlement regarding exclusion of an individual from an alcohol treatment program because of the side effects of his HIV medication, March 13, 2013); Woodlawn Family Dentistry (dentist office’s unequal treatment of people with HIV in the scheduling of future dental appointments, February 12, 2013); Castlewood Treatment Center (eating disorder clinic’s refusal to treat a woman for a serious eating disorder because she has HIV, February 6, 2013); and Fayetteville Pain Center (unlawful exclusion of a person with HIV from treatment, January 31, 2013).
While most announced Justice Department settlements involve the denial of interpreters to deaf or other communication impaired patients and discrimination in the treatment of HIV patients, the Justice Department also has shown a willingness to prosecute health care providers who engage in other types of disability discrimination. For instance, on April 3, 2012, the Justice Department reached a settlement with Richard Noren, M.D., Henry Kurzydlowski, M.D., and Pain Care Consultant, Inc., which resolved charges that they violated the ADA by failing to make reasonable changes to policies, practices, and procedures to enable a child with diabetes to participate in summer camp. Furthermore, although not necessarily reflected in the currently published, officially announced settlements of the Justice Department, health care providers have reported that the Justice Department and HHS also have become increasingly aggressive in investigating disability claims of visually or other physically, cognitively, or emotionally disabled patients arising from the failure of health care providers to accommodate their need for support or comfort animals.
Justice Department Plans To Keep Heat On Health Care Providers
All signs are that the Justice Department intends to continue, if not expand its Barrier-Free Health Care Initiatives. In fact, the suit against Dr. Brown and PCTC comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s filing of an ADA disabilities discrimination lawsuit against the State of Florida alleging the state is in violation of the ADA in its administration of its service system for children with significant medical needs.
The Justice Department lawsuit against the State of Florida charges that Florida’s programs have resulted in nearly 200 children with disabilities being unnecessarily segregated in nursing facilities which should be served in their family homes or other community-based settings. The Justice Department further alleges that the state’s policies and practices place other children with significant medical needs in the community at serious risk of institutionalization in nursing facilities. The department’s complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages for affected children.
“Florida must ensure that children with significant medical needs are not isolated in nursing facilities, away from their families and communities,” said Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Children have a right to grow up with their families, among their friends and in their own communities. This is the promise of the ADA’s integration mandate as articulated by the Supreme Court in Olmstead. The violations the department has identified are serious, systemic and ongoing and require comprehensive relief for these children and their families.”
Health Industry Disability Discrimination Risks: Beyond The Justice Department
While private plaintiffs as well as the Justice Department and other agencies increasingly successfully sue health care providers for violating the ADA and other disability discrimination laws, the often significant damages and defense costs that often arise from these suits are only part of the exposure that health care providers should consider and manage. Among other things, health care providers accused or found to engage in disability discrimination also generally also risk significant adverse publicity, loss or curtailment of federal or state program participation, reimbursement or other contractual or administrative penalties, licensing board and accreditation sanctions, burdensome corrective action and ongoing reporting and oversight and other consequences.
Perhaps most notably, HHS also is stepping up enforcement against health care providers that discriminate against the disabled. Like the actions of the Justice Department, many of these enforcement actions focus heavily on discrimination against HIV patients as well as deaf or other individuals whose disabilities impairs their ability to communicate effectively with health care providers.
For instance, on July 18, 2013, HHS announced the termination of Medicaid funding to a California surgeon who intentionally discriminated against an HIV-positive patient by refusing to perform much-needed back surgery. The HHS Departmental Appeals Board concluded that the surgeon violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits disability discrimination by health care providers who receive federal funds. The order follows an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigation of a complaint filed by a patient who alleged that the surgeon refused to perform back surgery after learning that the patient was HIV-positive. OCR found that the surgeon discriminated against the patient on the basis of his HIV status in violation of federal civil rights laws. See HHS Press Release; HHS Departmental Appeals Board Decision; OCR Violation Letter of Findings.
HHS’s exclusion of the surgeon from federal program participation is part of a long-standing policy of OCR of pursuing disability discrimination actions against providers that discriminate against patients with HIV. For instance OCR previously has announced that an Austin, Texas orthopedic surgeon had agreed to ensure that individuals living with HIV/AIDS have equal access to appropriate medical treatment in order to resolve charges brought in an OCR Violation Letter of Finding charging the surgeon with violating the Rehabilitation Act by refusing to perform knee surgery on an HIV-positive patient. See Settlement Agreement.
OCR, like the Justice Department, also is aggressive in pursuing Rehabilitation Act claims against health care providers for failing to provide interpreters or other appropriate accommodations for deaf or other patients with disabilities that impair their ability to communicate. In March, for instance, OCR announced a settlement agreement with national senior care provider, Genesis HealthCare (Genesis) which resolved an OCR complaint that Genesis violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide a qualified interpreter to a resident at its skilled nursing facility in Randallstown, Maryland. See, Genesis Settlement.
OCR construes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as among other things requiring that facilities take appropriate steps to ensure effective communications with individuals. According to OCR, throughout the patient’s stay at the facility, an OCR investigation showed center staff relied on written notes and gestures to communicate with the resident, even while conducting a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation with him. Moreover, by not being provided a qualified interpreter, evaluations of his care and discussions on the effects of his numerous medications and the risks caused by not following recommended treatments and prescription protocols had harmful effects on the patient’s overall health status. According to OCR Director Leon Rodriguez, “This patient’s care was unnecessarily and significantly compromised by the stark absence of interpreter services.” OCR concluded that in order for the patient and staff to be able to communicate effectively with each other regarding treatment, a qualified sign language interpreter would have been necessary.
Under the terms of the agreement, Genesis must require all facilities to provide interpreters and other suitable communications accommodations to language disabled patients, form an auxiliary aids and services hotline; create an advisory committee to provide guidance and direction on how to best communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing community; designate a monitor to conduct a self-assessment and obtain feedback from deaf and hard of hearing individuals and advocates and conduct outreach to promote awareness of hearing impairments and services that are available for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. In addition Genesis will be required to pay monetary penalties for noncompliance with any terms of the agreement.
In announcing the Genesis settlement, Director Rodriguez warned, “My office continues its enforcement activities and work with providers, particularly large health care systems like Genesis, to make certain that compliance with nondiscrimination laws is a system wide obligation.
The Genesis Agreement is typical of a multitude of settlements resulting from OCR enforcement against health care providers for failing to accommodate deaf, speech or other communication impaired patients. See, e.g. Cattaraugus County Department of Aging Settlement Agreement; District of Columbia Children and Family Services Agency Settlement Agreement (February 8, 2013); Memorial Health System Colorado Springs Voluntary Resolution Agreement (November 7, 2012); Advanced Dialysis Centers Settlement Agreement (February 17, 2012).
When evaluating the need to provide interpreters, health care providers also should consider the advisability of offering interpreters for patients whose primary language is not English. OCR’s discrimination enforcement efforts often extend to other language impaired persons such as English as a Second Language patients. In addition to its efforts on behalf of individuals with disabilities impacting their ability to communicate, OCR recently announced a national initiative under which it will conduct compliance reviews of critical access hospitals as part of its efforts to strengthen language access for individuals whose primary language is not English. See OCR Launches Nationwide Compliance Review Initiative To Strengthen Language Access Programs At Critical Access Hospitals.
Health care providers also should ensure that their take appropriate steps to accommodate other disabilities. For instance, the use of support animals by veterans, children, and other patients with physical, emotional or cognitive disorders on the rise, health care providers need to ensure that their policies, practices, training, facilities leases and other vendor contracts, posting and other arrangements are updated to accommodate patients requiring the use of support or comfort animals. OCR’s enforcement actions already have extended to protection of the rights of disabled individuals to have the aid and assistance of their service animals when receiving services from health care providers. For instance, under a settlement agreement with the St. Mercy Medical Center (Mercy) in Fort Smith, Arkansas resolving an OCR complaint that it violated Section 504 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Mercy committed to revise it policies and procedures to comply with Section 504 and to provide staff comprehensive training on their obligations to provide services without discrimination to qualified persons with disabilities. This settlement follows an OCR investigation into a complaint filed by an individual whose service animal was not allowed to go with him into the hospital. See, Mercy Settlement Agreement. This recent newscast video highlights how the failure to update postings, training, and other practices could result in a host of negative publicity and enforcement actions from refusing or limiting the ability of a person with a disability to have the support of his comfort animal within a health care facility. North Texas Vet Cries Foul After Service Dog Rejection. This type of adverse publicity not only can do serious damage to a health care provider’s public image, it also is likely to trigger the type of investigation that lead to the Mercy enforcement action.
Other Disability Discrimination Risks
Defending or paying to settle a disability discrimination charge brought by a private plaintiff, OCR or another agency, or others tends to be financially, operationally and politically costly for a health care organization or public housing provider. In addition to the expanding readiness of OCR, the Justice Department and other agencies to pursue investigations and enforcement of disability discrimination and other laws, physicians and other licensed professionals can expect that they may face disciplinary action by their applicable licensing boards, whose rules typically now make disability or other wrongful discrimination against patients a violation of their rules. Meanwhile, the failure of health care organizations to effectively maintain processes to appropriately include and care for disabled other patients or constituents with special needs also can increase negligence exposure, undermine Joint Commission and other quality ratings, undermine efforts to qualify for public or private grant, partnerships or other similar arrangements, and create negative perceptions in the community.
Act To Manage & Mitigate Disability Risks
In the face of these growing risks , physicians, hospitals and their medical staffs, and other health care providers should review and tighten their policies, leases and other vendor contracts, practices and training to minimize their exposure to prosecution or other sanctions for disability discrimination.
In light of the expanding readiness of OCR, the Justice Department and other agencies to investigate and take action against health care providers for potential violations of the ADA, Section 504 and other federal discrimination and civil rights laws, health care organizations and their leaders should review and tighten their policies, practices, training, documentation, investigation, redress, discipline and other nondiscrimination policies and procedures.
Given a series of recent changes in the provisions of the ADA, discrimination regulations, and enforcement standards, this process generally should begin by reviewing the health care provider’s understanding and policies regarding disability and other discrimination to ensure that they comply with current legal and credentialing requirements and standards. Once the organization confirms its understanding of current rules is up-to-date, the health care provider also should critically evaluate its operations to identify where its postings, policies, training, practices and operations need to be updated or tightened to meet these standards or avoid other risks.
In carrying out these activities, organizations and their leaders should keep in mind the critical role of training and oversight of staff and contractors plays in promoting and maintaining required operational compliance with these requirements. Reported settlements reflect that the liability trigger often is discriminatory conduct by staff, contractors, or landlords in violation of both the law and the organization’s own policies.
To meet and maintain the necessary operational compliance with these requirements, organizations should both adopt and policies against prohibited discrimination and take the necessary steps to institutionalize compliance with these policies by providing ongoing staff and vendor training and oversight, contracting for and monitoring vendor compliance and other actions. Organizations also should take advantage of opportunities to identify and resolve potential compliance concerns by revising patient and other processes and procedures to enhance the ability of the organization to learn about and redress potential charges without government intervention.
For More Information Or Assistance
If you need assistance reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.
A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her presentations and programs include How to Ensure That Your Organization Is In Compliance With Regulations Governing Discrimination, as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on discrimination and cultural diversity, as well as a broad range of compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters.
Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications. You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.
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