Health Care

HHS resolves complaint over COVID-19 no-visitor policy for patients with disabilities

Dive Brief:

  • The HHS Office for Civil Rights announced Tuesday that it reached an early case resolution with the state of Connecticut following complaints made about an executive order limiting visitors in medical settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Exceptions were made only for patients receiving certain services from the state Department of Developmental Services, leaving large groups of people with disabilities unable to bring along needed support, HHS said. 
  • In May, the agency began receiving complaints that Connecticut’s guidance violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging that without support people, specific patients with disabilities were being denied equal access to medical treatment, effective communication, the ability to make informed decisions and provide consent, and that they were being unnecessarily subjected to physical and pharmacological restraints.
  • As part of the resolution, the state is issuing a new order establishing a statewide policy requiring hospitals and other settings to grant visitation access to a designated support person for a patient with a disability. Where such patients are in a setting for longer than one day, they may designate two support people, provided only one is present at a time.

Dive Insight:

One specific complaint HHS received came from a COVID-19 patient at Hartford Hospital, a 937-bed facility in the state.

The family of Joan Parsons, a 73-year-old patient who is mostly non-verbal and has severe short-term memory loss, alleged the hospital unlawfully failed to provide a reasonable modification to its no-visitor policy. Parsons was denied in-person access to support persons able to help with communication and comprehension during care, according to the release from OCR.

Without receiving services from the state DDS, she did not fall under the exception to no-visitor policies under Connecticut’s guidance.

“My mom had no choices,” her daughter, Susan Fandacone, said during a call with reporters Tuesday. “She had no opportunity to advocate for herself in any way.”

But Fandacone could, and advocated for her mother throughout the course of her treatment, which involved being put on a ventilator. Parsons survived and is now home recovering, she said.

During the same call, OCR Director Roger Severino said he hopes the changes made in Connecticut will serve as a model for other states with varying visitation policies based on declining cases.

Severino said the agency is receiving more complaints, though declined to say from which states. Some have voluntarily changed policies without intervention.

The Connecticut case is not the first time OCR has stepped in to adjudicate the rights of patients who are disabled during the pandemic. 

In April, the agency resolved a complaint against the Pennsylvania Department of Health alleging that its guidelines “unlawfully singled out and authorized the denial of treatment to individuals with disabilities when prioritizing access to critical care and ventilators.” The state changed its guidelines.

That ruling was only days after a similar resolution with the state of Alabama, also over ventilator triaging guidelines.

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