People with disabilities deserve the same access to treatment to combat COVID-19 as their peers without disabilities, and yet, we have seen increasing concern about disability discrimination in medical treatment during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly when it comes to accessing treatment and the quality of treatment provided.
As part of our continuing dedication to protecting the rights of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis, today, the Center for Public Representation, together with The Arc of the United States, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, and Professor Samuel Bagenstos, released critical guidance to states and healthcare providers about how to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities if rationing access to COVID-19 treatment becomes necessary. The guidance is endorsed by 90 national disability and health advocacy organizations.
As COVID-19 cases increase and spread throughout the country, U.S. health officials are predicting that there will not be enough ventilators, medical equipment, hospital beds, and health care personnel to meet the demand of patients with the virus who require intensive treatment. Some states and cities are already experiencing a shortage, and health care professionals and state officials have begun developing and updating protocols to determine who will and will not have access to life-saving COVID-19 treatment in the event care rationing becomes necessary.
Last week, CPR and partners filed four complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (HHS OCR) challenging the treatment rationing plans of Washington state, Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee as discriminatory against people with disabilities in violation of federal disability rights laws and expressing grave concerns about the threat such plans pose to the lives of people with disabilities. The Consortium for Citizens for Disabilities, National Council on Disability, and members of Congress also sent letters to HHS OCR, asking it to issue guidance about the application of disability rights laws to rationing plans.
In response to these complaints, HHS OCR issued a Bulletin on March 28, 2020 entitled “Civil Rights, HIPAA, and the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” that makes clear that federal disability laws prevent people with disabilities from being “put at the end of the line for health services during emergencies” and “protect the equal dignity of every human life from ruthless utilitarianism.” The HHS OCR Bulletin explains the obligations of states and healthcare providers to comply with federal disability rights laws in developing treatment rationing plans and administering care in the event of a shortage of medical equipment.
The guidance released today by advocates elaborates on the requirements in the HHS OCR Bulletin and explains how states and healthcare providers can take concrete steps to modify policies and practices so that people with disabilities aren’t denied medical treatment based on their disability and stereotypes and biases about whether they are fit to live or die.
“We are committed to ensuring that people with disabilities have equal access to life-saving treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Cathy Costanzo, CPR’s Executive Director. “It’s illegal to put people with disabilities at the end of the line.”
“Disability advocates across the country have contacted their governors, proactively asking to work together to ensure policies for accessing treatment do not discriminate,” said Alison Barkoff, CPR’s Director of Advocacy. “We hope today’s guidance will assist these critical collaborative efforts and avoid the need for disability advocates to bring lawsuits.”