By Gregory Kane, J.D., M.B.A.
The OCR effected a change in policy to allow support persons for patients with disabilities that were previously restricted by temporary visitor restrictions tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) resolved three disability discrimination complaints—centered on temporary visitor restrictions put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic—which potentially impacted support persons for patients with disabilities. The issues were resolved by altering a health system’s policy to clearly distinguish between a restricted "visitor" and an allowable "support person."
Background. MedStar Health System operates multiple health care locations throughout Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, including 10 hospitals, 14 urgent care centers, and 7 cancer treatment centers. MedStar adopted temporary visitor restrictions as part of infection control measures under the COVID-19 public health emergency. Three patients with disabilities filed complaints alleging, under these restrictions, they would be denied their support persons. A support person may be a family member, personal care assistant, similar disability service provider, or other individual knowledgeable about the management or care of the patient who is authorized to assist the patient in making decisions. The complaints collectively alleged that without their support persons, the patients with disabilities were denied effective communication with their treatment teams, denied the ability to make informed decisions and provide consent, and were subject to unnecessary physical and pharmacological restraints.
Resolution. In its press release, the OCR stated that it worked with the patients and MedStar to resolve the issues through OCR’s early complaint resolution process and to provide technical assistance on the application of federal disability law requirements—including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. MedStar revised its policy to clearly distinguish between a restricted "visitor" and an allowed "support person" who performs specific disability-related functions for patients with disabilities. This revision struck a balance between the hospitals practical needs to protect patients and staff from infection with the right of patients with disability to communicate with staff and receive hospital services.
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