Members of Congress are asking the U.S. health department to clarify that states cannot ration patient care for coronavirus on the basis of disability.
A group of 25 members of the House and five senators all wrote Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar on Wednesday, asking them to emphasize that states cannot discriminate against people with disabilities in their plans for dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we urge your Department to act quickly to notify states that as they review and create their ‘crisis standards of care,’ they must not authorize or promote any form of disability discrimination that would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,” the letter states.
The letter was authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and led by Smith and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) in the House. Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) signed on as well.
“Our nation cannot leave behind Americans with disabilities or pre-existing conditions during this crisis,” Smith stated.
“Especially during times of crisis, we cannot abandon our moral duty to protect vulnerable communities and stand for the value of life,” Lankford stated.
In the letter, the members note that, due to the rapid spread of the new coronavirus and an expected spike in hospitalizations, health care rationing may be inevitable. However, they add, care cannot be denied or limited for a patient because of their disability.
Personnel and supplies “have been overwhelmed” during the spread of the new coronavirus, and with health care rationing reportedly “inevitable,” the HHS needs to “remind States of their obligation to adhere to existing anti-discrimination laws,” the letter states.
Earlier this week, the Thomas More Society and the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund issued a legal memorandum outlining federal civil rights protections against health care discrimination on the basis of disability or age.
Three scholars had requested the memorandum following reports that state health officials and hospitals were considering triage plans for rationing health care for younger or healthier patients.
For instance, in Washington state, health officials and hospitals were reportedly considering a plan to consider the “age, health and likelihood of survival” of COVID-19 patients when administering care and utilizing resources such as hospital beds and ventilators.
Disability rights groups filed a complaint with the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR), alleging that the state of Washington’s rationing plan would illegally and “discriminatorily disadvantage people with disabilities.”
Roger Severino, the HHS OCR director, stated to CNA this week that “Our civil rights laws protect the equal dignity of every human life from ruthless utilitarianism.”
“Persons with disabilities, with limited English skills, or needing religious accommodations should not be put at the end of the line for health services during emergencies,” Severino stated.