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US Disability Groups Push for Equality in Covid-19 Response

Successful Challenge to Discriminatory Language in Alabama’s Emergency Care Plans

The picture shows the emblem of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. © Tim Brakemeier/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

As experts warn that the Covid-19 pandemic could overwhelm emergency rooms across the United States, some state policies on emergency care have come under scrutiny for potentially discriminating against people with disabilities. Disability rights groups have begun challenging some of them.

On March 24, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed a complaint with the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Civil Rights challenging the Alabama Department of Public Health’s 2010 emergency operations plan. The plan states that “persons with severe mental retardation [and] advanced dementia” among others “may be poor candidates for ventilator support.” In response to the complaint, the public health department removed the plan online, clarified that its more recent February 2020 crisis standards of care plan does not include this language, and announced that it would not discriminate in the use of ventilators.

The HHS Civil Rights Office, which said that the complaint had been resolved, also issued a statement informing all states that under US law, “persons with disabilities should not be denied medical care on the basis of stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about a person’s relative ‘worth’ based on the presence or absence of disabilities or age.”

International human rights and US federal law prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. In the context of Covid-19, states should be adopting preventive measures to reduce the need for triage that will deny emergency medical care to some.

But if and when hospitals do face the need to triage access to ventilators and consider factors such as likelihood of survival, it is critically important that they avoid creating blanket categories of people who will be denied treatment.

People with disabilities have the same right to health, including life-saving treatment, as everyone else. All states should ensure their triage policies do not discriminate against them.

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