Civil Rights Settlement Highlights Health Industry Discrimination Risks As OCR Prepares To Broaden Requirements

October 27, 2015

Doctors’ Center Hospital, Inc.  (DCI) in the latest health care providers nailed in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforcement action for allegedly violating Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) by failing to provide auxiliary aids and services for deaf and hard of hearing patients under OCR’s ongoing aggressive campaigned on enforcing federal discrimination laws against health care providers and others covered by its regulations.  OCR’s announcement of the Voluntary Compliance Resolution Agreement with DCI (Agreement) announced today (October 27, 2015) comes with the November 6, 2015 deadline for health care providers and other concerned parties to comment on proposed OCR regulations on Nondiscrimination in Health Programs and Activities, implementing the federal prohibition against sex discrimination in health programs and activities enacted under Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) and tightening other nondiscrimination requirements that generally apply to health care providers and others covered by OCR’s civil rights rules (covered entities) and various other programs and activities administered by OCR. Health care providers and others covered by these rules should provide meaningful input on the proposed rules even as they work to tighten their compliance and risk management practices to mitigate their exposures.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (collectively the “Civil Rights Laws”) together require hospitals, health care providers, clinics, medical practices and other entities who receive Federal financial assistance to provide services to persons with disabilities in a non-discriminatory manner.  As construed by OCR with respect to deaf and hearing impaired individuals and their caregivers, these laws require health care providers offer services or aids need to ensure effective communication in light of the abilities of the individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, the primary method used by the individual to communicate and the complexity and nature of the information being conveyed. Failure to ensure effective communication in such health care settings may lead to misinformation, inappropriate diagnosis and/or delayed or improper medical treatments.

DCI  Discrimination Charge Settlement

The latest in a growing series of Civil Rights Law enforcement actions of these laws against health care providers by OCR, the Agreement announced October 27, 2015 resolves OCR charges stemming from a discrimination complaint made to OCR by an family that charged that one DCI facility, Doctors’ Center Hospital San Juan, Inc. violated Section 504 by failing to provide a sign language interpreter necessary to ensure effective communication during their 10 month old child’s five day hospitalization. OCR investigated the complaint under Section 504, which prohibits covered entities that receive Federal financial assistance from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.

While the complaint that resulted in the OCR charges only specifically named its Doctors’ Center Hospital San Juan, Inc., at DCI’s request, the Agreement includes all of DCI facilities in Puerto Rico, which collectively serve an estimated 109,000 patients a year in the San Juan area as well as the northern part of the island of Puerto Rico.  Under the Agreement, DCI, Doctors’ Center Hospital San Juan, Inc. and the Doctors’ Center Hospital Bayamón, Inc. to resolve the complaint agree to take several actions to improve access to appropriate communication services for deaf and hard of hearing individuals including revising its policies and procedures, performing an assessment of the communication needs for deaf and hard of hearing patients and their companions, providing appropriate auxiliary aids and services at no cost, adopting and posting a Notice of Nondiscrimination, creating a Section 504 Grievance Procedure, appointing a Section 504 Coordinator and training all staff on the revised policies and procedures. Read the full Agreement here.

Health Industry’s Already High Civil Rights Enforcement Risks Set To Rise

The DCI Agreement highlights the already significant exposure that health care providers face under OCR’s current Civil Rights Law enforcement practices and comes as OCR is preparing to broaden and expand its existing Civil Rights regulations by adopting proposed changes to its regulations on Nondiscrimination in Health Programs and Activities. The deadline for comment on those proposed regulations is November 6, 2015.

Even before it adopts these proposed changes, health care providers already face significant Civil Rights discrimination risks.  OCR already aggressively investigates and enforces federal Civil Rights Law prohibitions against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, disability, age and sex against covered entities as part of the Obama Administration’s broader civil rights agenda. See. e.g., Health Care Employer’s Discrimination Triggers Medicare, EEOC Prosecutions; Genesis Healthcare Disability HHS OCR Discrimination Settlement Reminder To Use Interpreters, Other Needed Accommodations For Disabled; OCR Settlements Show Health Care & Disabled Housing Providers Face Growing Disability Discrimination Risks. Given the often multimillion dollar penalties and other heavy sanctions that OCR already regularly imposes against a long and ever-growing list of state and other health care, child care, elder care, insurance and other entities for violating its Civil Rights Laws, health care providers and other providers, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage and other insurers, and other covered entities generally will want both to carefully review and comment as appropriate on the proposed rules, as well as review and tighten as advisable their existing practices to reduce the risk of being sanctioned, excluded or both for violation of these nondiscrimination and other civil rights requirements by OCR. In this respect, covered entities will want both to evaluate their risks and responsibilities under the specific rules about Section 1557’s sex discrimination prohibits, as well as changes that more broadly affect the interpretation and enforcement of the nondiscrimination rules enforced by OCR generally.

The author of this article, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney and Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C., an attorney practicing as the co-managing member of Stamer│Chadwick │Soefje PLLC, author, pubic speaker, health policy advocate and industry thought leader, has focused on helping health industry and other organizations and their management understand and use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk including significant work with compliance with OCR and other regulatory requirements.

Scribe responsible for leading the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) annual agency meeting with HHS Office of Civil Rights for five years, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 28 years’ experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters.

Ms. Stamer’s experience includes advising and defending hospitals, nursing home, home health, physicians and other health care professionals, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies and programs in response under CMS, OCR, HHS, FDA, IRS, DOJ, DEA, NIH, licensing, and other regulations; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to Board of Medicine, OIG, DOJ, DEA, DOD, DOL, Department of Health, Department of Aging & Disability, IRS, Department of Insurance, and other federal and state regulators; ERISA and private insurance, prompt pay and other reimbursement and contracting; peer review and other quality concerns; and other health care industry investigation, and enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.

Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her regulatory and public policy advocacy, publications, and public speaking on privacy and other compliance, risk management concerns. Her insights on privacy, data security, and other matters have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Spencer Publications, and a host of other publications. She speaks and has conducted privacy training for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans (ASTHO), the Los Angeles Health Department, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of health industry, health plan, insurance and financial services, education, employer employee benefit and other clients, trade and professional associations and others.

Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer supports her clients both on a real time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with daily performance management and operations, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.

Ms. Stamer also is active in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For instance, Ms. Stamer serves on the steering committee and as a faculty member of the Southern California ISSA-HIMMS Annual Security Summit and Chaired its 2015 3rd Annual Health Care Privacy Summit.  Ms. Stamer presently serves on an American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; Immediate Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, its current Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Co-Chair, on its Substantive Groups & Committee and its incoming Defined Contribution Plan Committee Chair and Practice Management Vice Chair; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and a current member of its Healthcare Coordinating Council; current Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee; the former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications.  She also previously served as a founding Board Member and President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, as a Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; the Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see here, or the website Stamer ׀ Chadwick ׀ Soefje PLLC.  To contact Ms. Stamer, e-mail her here or telephone (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™  provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of Ms. Stamer’s publications our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources such as:


Check Defensibility Of Policies & Practices Given New HHS/DOJ Joint Disability Law Technical Assistance

August 10, 2015

Child welfare agencies, health care providers and their contactors and other service providers should evaluate the adequacy and defensibility of their existing practices for accommodating and providing other services to individuals with disabilities and their families in light of the new joint technical assistance to state and local child welfare agencies and courts on the requirements of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act jointly announced by the Departments of Health & Human Services (HHS) and the Justice (DOJ) under a new HHS/DOJ partnership intended to help child welfare agencies protect the welfare of children and ensure compliance with nondiscrimination laws announced here August 10, 2015.

Federal child welfare and discrimination laws generally prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, and require providers of government programs, services, and activities to make reasonable modifications to their policies and practices when necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability, unless such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the program or the services.  The new joint technical assistance addresses disability discrimination complaints that HHS and DOJ say the agencies have received from parents who have had their children taken away or otherwise have not been given equal opportunities to become foster or adoptive parents.

The technical assistance provides an overview of Title II of the ADA and Section 504 and examples about how to apply them in the child welfare system, including child welfare investigations, assessments, guardianship, removal of children from their homes, case planning, adoption, foster care, and family court hearings, such as termination of parental rights proceedings.  It also underscores that Title II and Section 504 prohibit child welfare agencies from acting based on unfounded assumptions, generalizations, or stereotypes regarding persons with disabilities.

HHS and DOJ hope “[p]roviding this technical assistance to state and local agencies and courts will help ensure that families who have a member with a disability get equal access to vital child welfare services,” said Mark Greenberg, HHS’ Administration for Children and Families’ Acting Assistant Secretary.

The new child welfare technical assistance is part of a broader ongoing emphasis on investigation and enforcement of disability and other discrimination laws by HHS, DOJ and other agencies under the Obama Administration. Under the Obama Administration, HHS, DOJ and other agencies already have heavily sanctioned many child welfare, health care and other agencies and providers for alleged violation of these and other federal disability discrimination laws.  See, e.g., Health Care Employer’s Discrimination Triggers Medicare, EEOC Prosecutions; Hospital Will Pay $75K For Refusing To Hire Disabled Worker;  OCR Settlements Show Health Care & Disabled Housing Providers Face Growing Disability Discrimination RisksGenesis Healthcare Disability HHS OCR Discrimination Settlement Reminder To Use Interpreters, Other Needed Accommodations For Disabled.   In the face of this emphasis, child welfare, health care and other agencies and their legal counsel and other service providers should expect greater deference and enforcement to the needs of children and parents with disabilities in child custody, adoption, divorce and other proceedings, as well as continued investigation and enforcement of disability and other discrimination laws against child welfare, health care, and other social service agencies, their legal counsel and other advocates and others providing services.  These and other organizations and service providers should  evaluate the defensibility of the existing policies, practices and recordkeeping practices of their own organization, as well as those of their contractors and subcontractors in light of these and other disability discrimination laws, regulations and enforcement practices.

For More Advice, Assistance Or More Information

If you need assistance reviewing or responding to these or other health care related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Ms. Stamer is a highly regarded practicing attorney with extensive health industry legal and policy experience, also recognized as a knowledgeable and highly popular health industry thought and policy leader, who writes and publishes extensively  on health industry concerns. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, recognized as a “Top” lawyer in Health Care, Labor and Employment and Employee Benefits Law, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 27 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising and defending hospitals, nursing home, home health, physicians and other health care professionals, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies and programs in response under CMS, OCR, HHS, FDA, IRS, DOJ, DEA, NIH, licensing, and other regulations; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to Board of Medicine, OIG, DOJ, DEA, DOD, DOL, Department of Health, Department of Aging & Disability, IRS, Department of Insurance, and other federal and state regulators; ERISA and private insurance, prompt pay and other reimbursement and contracting; peer review and other quality concerns; and other health care industry investigation, and enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. This experience includes extensive work advising and defending physicians, practices, hospitals and other health care organizations and others about Medicare and other health care billing and reimbursement practices,  as well as advising and defending providers against Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare and other audits, prepayment suspensions, provider exclusions and provider number revocation, and counseling and defending providers, medical staff and peer review committees, hospitals, medical practices and other health care organizations and others in relation to the conduct of audits and investigations, peer review investigations and discipline, employment, licensing board and other associated events.

The scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits annual agency meeting with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights,  past Board President of the Richardson Development for Children and former Board Audit Committee Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has lead, advised, represented and conducted training and investigations of disability and other legal and operations risk management and compliance for early childhood intervention (ECI) and other childcare, health care, public and private schools, social service and other public and private organizations.  Ms. Stamer also  has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA and other information privacy and data security rules, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns.  Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others.  In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans,  as well as  HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for  Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others. Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer such as the following, see here:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here. For important information about this communication click here.THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN. ©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All other rights reserved.


CMS Publishes FY 2014 Final Inpatient Rehab Facility Prospective Payment Rule

August 1, 2013

Inpatient Rehabilitation Facilities (IRFs) take note.  The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services yesterday (July 31, 2013) published its final Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility (IRF), Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility Prospective Payment System for Federal Fiscal Year 2014 Final Rule (Rule). The Rule, which with its preamble is 272 pages, among other things:

  • Updates the prospective payment rates for (IRFs) for federal fiscal year (FY) 2014 (for discharges occurring on or after October 1, 2013 and on or before September 30, 2014) as required by the statute.
  • Revises the list of diagnosis codes that may be counted toward an IRF’s “60 percent rule” compliance calculation to determine “presumptive compliance,” update the IRF facility-level adjustment factors using an enhanced estimation methodology;
  • Revises sections of the Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility-Patient Assessment Instrument,
  • Revises requirements for acute care hospitals that have IRF units;
  • Clarifies the IRF regulation text regarding limitation of review;
  • Updates references to previously changed sections in the regulations text; and
  • Revises and updates quality measures and reporting requirements under the IRF quality reporting program.

The regulatory amendments in this Rule generally are effective as follows:

  • Its revisions to the list of diagnosis codes used to determine presumptive compliance under the “60 percent rule” are applicable for compliance review periods beginning on or after October 1, 2014; and
  • The updated IRF prospective payment rates are applicable for IRF discharges occurring on or after October 1, 2013 and on or before September 30, 2014 (FY 2014).
  • The changes to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility-Patient Assessment Instrument, the amendments to §412.25, and the revised and updated quality measures and reporting requirements under the IRF quality reporting program are applicable for IRF discharges occurring on or after October 1, 2014.

IRFs, their operators, management and investors should review the new rules, update their practices and budgets and make other arrangements to respond effectively to the Rule.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance responding to regulatory, enforcement or other developments, reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her presentations and programs include How to Ensure That Your Organization Is In Compliance With Regulations Governing Discrimination, as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on discrimination and cultural diversity, as well as a broad range of compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters. Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see  here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources including:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here. For important information concerning this communication click here.  THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.  

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


Tighten Disability Compliance To Avoid ADA Suits, Program Disqualification & Other Risks

July 30, 2013

The Department of Justice’s July 29, 2013 announcement that it is suing Dr. Hal Brown and Primary Care of the Treasure Coast of Vero Beach, Florida (PCTC) for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating and retaliating against two deaf patients reminds physicians, clinics, hospitals and other health industry providers, their landlords, and other vendors to tighten their understanding, practices of federal and state disability discrimination laws to avoid getting nailed for improper discrimination.   Following on the Department of Health & Human Service’s recently announced exclusion of a physician that illegally discriminated against a HIV-positive patient, health care providers are on notice that Federal officials are gunning for health care providers who illegally discriminate against patients and others with disabilities.

With the Justice Department, HHS and others targeting discrimination in the health care industry, physicians and their practices, clinics, hospitals and other private and public health care providers, and their landlords and other vendors should update their understanding of disability discrimination responsibilities and exposures, and then review and tighten policies, practices, workforce training and oversight, and other risk management and compliance practice to help prevent and mitigate exposures to disability and other discrimination claims.

Health Care Providers & Industry Under Fire For Disability Discrimination

While the heavy emphasis generally placed upon the enforcement of disability laws by the Obama Administration has heightened the risks of all U.S. businesses, health care providers are particularly at risk to disability discrimination liability as a result of the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative of the Justice Department and related health industry disability enforcement initiatives of HHS and other federal agencies.

Health care provider, like other U.S. businesses, face sweeping responsibilities under the various federal laws such as the public accommodation and other disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA, Section 504, the Civil Rights Act and various other laws. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act generally requires recipients of Medicare, Medicaid, HUD, Department of Education, welfare and most other federal assistance programs funds including health care, education, housing services providers, state and local governments to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs, services, or activities receiving federal financial assistance.

The ADA extends the prohibition against disability discrimination to private providers and other businesses as well as state and local governments including but not limited to health care providers reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid or various other federal programs.  Rather, the ADA requirements and disability discrimination prohibitions generally apply to all U.S. health care and other businesses even if they do not receive federal financial assistance.  Under the ADA, health care providers and other covered businesses generally have a duty other to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to their programs, services or activities.  In many instances, these federal discrimination laws both prohibit discrimination and require health care and other regulated businesses to put in place reasonable accommodations needed to ensure that their services are accessible and available to persons with disabilities.

Specifically under the ADA:

  • The public accommodation provisions generally both prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities when delivering health care or other services, as well as require health industry and other businesses to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities unless the health care provider proves its actions are defensible under an exception to these general rules.
  • The employment discrimination provisions generally prohibit health care industry and other employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with a disability and require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled workers unless the health care provider can prove that its conduct qualifies under one of the allowable exceptions to the general prohibition against discrimination.
  • The anti-retaliation rules prohibit retaliation against an individual because he opposes an act that is unlawful under the ADA or because he made a charge, testified, assisted or participated in any way in an investigation, proceeding or hearing under the ADA.  These provisions also make it unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any individual exercising their rights protected by the ADA.

Meanwhile the Civil Rights Act and other laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin, race, sex, age, religion and various other grounds.  These federal rules impact almost all public and private health care providers as well as a broad range housing and related service providers.

Justice Department ADA Suit Against Brown & PCTC

The ADA lawsuit against Dr. Brown and PCTC comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s Celebration of the 23rd Anniversary of the ADA last week and is an example of one of a growing number of lawsuits and other actions against health care providers resulting from the Justice Department “Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative”  and related Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) enforcement efforts focusing on ensuring access to health care for individuals with disabilities.

The Department of Justice suit charges Dr. Brown and PCTC with violating the public accommodation and anti-retaliation provisions of ADA by discriminating against a deaf couple, Susan and James Liese by discriminating against a deaf couple, Susan and James Liese and then retaliating against the couple for engaging in activities protected under the ADA.

According to the Justice Department’s complaint, Dr. Brown and PCTC terminated Mr. and Mrs. Liese as patients because the couple pursued ADA claims against a hospital located next door to and affiliated with PCTC for not providing effective communication during an emergency surgery.  The complaint alleges that after learning that the Lieses threatened the hospital with an ADA suit based on failure to provide sign language interpreter services, PCTC and Dr. Brown, who was the Liese’s primary doctor at PCTC, immediately terminated the Lieses as patients.

The Justice Department says this termination of the Lieses as patients violated the ADA.  According to Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, “A person cannot be terminated as a patient because he or she asserts the right to effective communication at a hospital.”

While it remains to be seen if the Justice Department will be successful in its suit against Dr. Brown and PCTC, it has experienced significant success in disability discrimination actions against other health care providers.

Justice Department Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative Successes Growing

Justice Department suits like the ADA suit against Dr. Brown and PCTC are increasingly common and successful.

While the Justice Department across the years has prosecuted various health care providers for illegal discrimination under the ADA, it has turned up the heat with its nationwide Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative.  According to the Justice Department, it intends that the prosecutions under the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative to focus and leverage the Justice Department’s resources together and send a clear message that disability discrimination in health care is illegal and unacceptable.

Since the Justice Department announced its Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative last year, for instance, the Justice Department has entered into 18 settlements under the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative.  These include three agreements requiring health care providers to provide auxiliary aids and services, including sign language interpreters, to individuals who are deaf to ensure effective communication in health care settings including two settlements in the last month.

On June 27, 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee announced that Heart Center of Memphis has agreed to provide qualified sign language and oral interpreters as well as other auxiliary aids and services to patients who are deaf, have hearing loss or have speech disabilities to resolve a Justice Department complaint charging the Heart Center violated the ADA by telling a deaf patient that it was his responsibility to arrange a sign language interpreter for his appointment.  After several unsuccessful attempts to get the Heart Center to provide a qualified sign language interpreter as required by law, the patient cancelled his appointment.

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia announced it had reached a disability discrimination settlement agreement with Midtown Neurology P.C.  The settlement resolved a complaint alleging that Midtown Neurology P.C. failed to provide, over multiple appointments, a qualified sign language interpreter for a patient who is deaf.   At one appointment, the patient underwent a painful neurological test.  Because there was no interpreter, the patient could not communicate that she was frightened and in pain, and that she wanted the doctor to stop the procedure.  Under the agreement, Midtown Neurology P.C. will provide auxiliary aids and services, including qualified interpreters, to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing where necessary to ensure effective communication.

In previous months, the Justice Department also has reached settlement agreements resolving charges health care providers violated the ADA by failing to provide interpreters or other accommodations for deaf or other communication impaired patients with Burke Health and Rehabilitation Center (May 3, 2013); Monadnock Community Hospital (April 5, 2013); Manassas Health and Rehab Center (April 5, 2013); Gainesville Health and Rehab Center (April 5, 2013); the Center for Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine, Inc. (April 5, 2013); Northern Ohio Medical Specialists (April 5, 2013); Northshore University Healthsystems (June 28, 2012); Steven Senica, M.D., and Senica Bruneau, Ltd. (June 11, 2012); Trinity Regional Medical Center and Trinity Health Systems (March 29, 2012); Henry Ford Health System (February 1, 2012); and Cheshire Medical Center, Keene Health Alliance, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic D/B/A Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene (October 31, 2011)

In addition, the Justice Department also particularly is aggressive in prosecuting health care providers that discriminate against individuals with HIV.  In the past six months, the Department reports it has reached five settlement agreements with medical providers to address HIV discrimination.

For instance, the Justice Department on July 26, 2013 announced that Barix Clinics, an organization that operates bariatric treatment facilities in Michigan and Pennsylvania, will pay $35,000 to victim-complainants and a $10,000 civil penalty, train its staff on the ADA and implement an anti-discrimination policy to settle Justice Department charges that Barix Clinics unlawfully refused to perform bariatric surgery on a man at its Langhorne, Pa., facility because he has HIV.  The Department also determined that Barix Clinics cancelled bariatric surgery for another individual at its Ypsilanti, Michigan facility because he has HIV.

The Barix Clinic settlement added to a long list of earlier settlements of ADA charges stemming from discrimination against HIV patients including Glenbeigh (settlement regarding exclusion of an individual from an alcohol treatment program because of the side effects of his HIV medication, March 13, 2013); Woodlawn Family Dentistry (dentist office’s unequal treatment of people with HIV in the scheduling of future dental appointments, February 12, 2013); Castlewood Treatment Center (eating disorder clinic’s refusal to treat a woman for a serious eating disorder because she has HIV, February 6, 2013); and Fayetteville Pain Center (unlawful exclusion of a person with HIV from treatment, January 31, 2013).

While most announced Justice Department settlements involve the denial of interpreters to deaf or other communication impaired patients and discrimination in the treatment of HIV patients, the Justice Department also has shown a willingness to prosecute health care providers who engage in other types of disability discrimination.  For instance, on April 3, 2012, the Justice Department reached a settlement with Richard Noren, M.D., Henry Kurzydlowski, M.D., and Pain Care Consultant, Inc., which resolved charges that they violated the ADA by failing to make reasonable changes to policies, practices, and procedures to enable a child with diabetes to participate in summer camp.  Furthermore, although not necessarily reflected in the currently published, officially announced settlements of the Justice Department, health care providers have reported that the Justice Department and HHS also have become increasingly aggressive in investigating disability claims of visually or other physically, cognitively, or emotionally disabled patients arising from the failure of health care providers to accommodate their need for support or comfort animals.

Justice Department Plans To Keep Heat On Health Care Providers

All signs are that the Justice Department intends to continue, if not expand its Barrier-Free Health Care Initiatives.  In fact, the suit against Dr. Brown and PCTC comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s filing of an ADA disabilities discrimination lawsuit against the State of Florida alleging the state is in violation of the ADA in its administration of its service system for children with significant medical needs.

The Justice Department lawsuit against the State of Florida charges that Florida’s programs have resulted in nearly 200 children with disabilities being unnecessarily segregated in nursing facilities which should be served in their family homes or other community-based settings.  The Justice Department further alleges that the state’s policies and practices place other children with significant medical needs in the community at serious risk of institutionalization in nursing facilities.  The department’s complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages for affected children.

“Florida must ensure that children with significant medical needs are not isolated in nursing facilities, away from their families and communities,” said Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.  “Children have a right to grow up with their families, among their friends and in their own communities.  This is the promise of the ADA’s integration mandate as articulated by the Supreme Court in Olmstead.  The violations the department has identified are serious, systemic and ongoing and require comprehensive relief for these children and their families.”

Health Industry Disability Discrimination Risks:  Beyond The Justice Department

While private plaintiffs as well as the Justice Department and other agencies increasingly successfully sue health care providers for violating the ADA and other disability discrimination laws, the often significant damages and defense costs that often arise from these suits are only part of the exposure that health care providers should consider and manage.  Among other things, health care providers accused or found to engage in disability discrimination also generally also risk significant adverse publicity, loss or curtailment of federal or state program participation, reimbursement or other contractual or administrative penalties, licensing board and accreditation sanctions, burdensome corrective action and ongoing reporting and oversight and other consequences.

Perhaps most notably, HHS also is stepping up enforcement against health care providers that discriminate against the disabled.  Like the actions of the Justice Department, many of these enforcement actions focus heavily on discrimination against HIV patients as well as deaf or other individuals whose disabilities impairs their ability to communicate effectively with health care providers.

For instance, on July 18, 2013, HHS announced the termination of Medicaid funding to a California surgeon who intentionally discriminated against an HIV-positive patient by refusing to perform much-needed back surgery. The HHS Departmental Appeals Board concluded that the surgeon violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits disability discrimination by health care providers who receive federal funds. The order follows an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigation of a complaint filed by a patient who alleged that the surgeon refused to perform back surgery after learning that the patient was HIV-positive. OCR found that the surgeon discriminated against the patient on the basis of his HIV status in violation of federal civil rights laws. See HHS Press Release; HHS Departmental Appeals Board Decision; OCR Violation Letter of Findings.

HHS’s exclusion of the surgeon from federal program participation is part of a long-standing policy of OCR of pursuing disability discrimination actions against providers that discriminate against patients with HIV.  For instance OCR previously has announced that an Austin, Texas orthopedic surgeon had agreed to ensure that individuals living with HIV/AIDS have equal access to appropriate medical treatment in order to resolve charges brought in an OCR Violation Letter of Finding charging the surgeon with violating the Rehabilitation Act by refusing to perform knee surgery on an HIV-positive patient.  See Settlement Agreement.

OCR, like the Justice Department, also is aggressive in pursuing Rehabilitation Act claims against health care providers for failing to provide interpreters or other appropriate accommodations for deaf or other patients with disabilities that impair their ability to communicate. In March, for instance, OCR announced a settlement agreement with national senior care provider, Genesis HealthCare (Genesis) which resolved an OCR complaint that Genesis violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide a qualified interpreter to a resident at its skilled nursing facility in Randallstown, Maryland. See, Genesis Settlement.

OCR construes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as among other things requiring that facilities take appropriate steps to ensure effective communications with individuals. According to OCR, throughout the patient’s stay at the facility, an OCR investigation showed center staff relied on written notes and gestures to communicate with the resident, even while conducting a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation with him.  Moreover, by not being provided a qualified interpreter, evaluations of his care and discussions on the effects of his numerous medications and the risks caused by not following recommended treatments and prescription protocols had harmful effects on the patient’s overall health status.  According to OCR Director Leon Rodriguez, “This patient’s care was unnecessarily and significantly compromised by the stark absence of interpreter services.” OCR concluded that in order for the patient and staff to be able to communicate effectively with each other regarding treatment, a qualified sign language interpreter would have been necessary.

Under the terms of the agreement, Genesis must require all facilities to provide interpreters and other suitable communications accommodations to language disabled patients, form an auxiliary aids and services hotline; create an advisory committee to provide guidance and direction on how to best communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing community; designate a monitor to conduct a self-assessment and obtain feedback from deaf and hard of hearing individuals and advocates and conduct outreach to promote awareness of hearing impairments and services that are available for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.  In addition Genesis will be required to pay monetary penalties for noncompliance with any terms of the agreement.

In announcing the Genesis settlement, Director Rodriguez warned, “My office continues its enforcement activities and work with providers, particularly large health care systems like Genesis, to make certain that compliance with nondiscrimination laws is a system wide obligation.

The Genesis Agreement is typical of a multitude of settlements resulting from OCR enforcement against health care providers for failing to accommodate deaf, speech or other communication impaired patients.  See, e.g. Cattaraugus County Department of Aging Settlement Agreement; District of Columbia Children and Family Services Agency Settlement Agreement (February 8, 2013); Memorial Health System Colorado Springs  Voluntary Resolution Agreement (November 7, 2012); Advanced Dialysis Centers Settlement Agreement (February  17, 2012).

When evaluating the need to provide interpreters, health care providers also should consider the advisability of offering interpreters for patients whose primary language is not English.  OCR’s discrimination enforcement efforts often extend to other language impaired persons such as English as a Second Language patients.  In addition to its efforts on behalf of individuals with disabilities impacting their ability to communicate, OCR recently announced a national initiative under which it will conduct compliance reviews of critical access hospitals as part of its efforts to strengthen language access for individuals whose primary language is not English.  See OCR Launches Nationwide Compliance Review Initiative To Strengthen Language Access Programs At Critical Access Hospitals.

Health care providers also should ensure that their take appropriate steps to accommodate other disabilities.  For instance, the use of support animals by veterans, children, and other patients with physical, emotional or cognitive disorders on the rise, health care providers need to ensure that their policies, practices, training, facilities leases and other vendor contracts, posting and other arrangements are updated to accommodate patients requiring the use of support or comfort animals.  OCR’s enforcement actions already have extended to protection of the rights of disabled individuals to have the aid and assistance of their service animals when receiving services from health care providers.  For instance, under a settlement agreement with the St. Mercy Medical Center (Mercy) in Fort Smith, Arkansas resolving an OCR complaint that it violated Section 504 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Mercy committed to revise it policies and procedures to comply with Section 504 and to provide staff comprehensive training on their obligations to provide services without discrimination to qualified persons with disabilities. This settlement follows an OCR investigation into a complaint filed by an individual whose service animal was not allowed to go with him into the hospital.  See, Mercy Settlement Agreement. This recent newscast video highlights how the failure to update postings, training, and other practices could result in a host of negative publicity and enforcement actions from refusing or limiting the ability of a person with a disability to have the support of his comfort animal within a health care facility. North Texas Vet Cries Foul After Service Dog Rejection.  This type of adverse publicity not only can do serious damage to a health care provider’s public image, it also is likely to trigger the type of investigation that lead to the Mercy enforcement action.

Other Disability Discrimination Risks

Defending or paying to settle a disability discrimination charge brought by a private plaintiff, OCR or another agency, or others tends to be financially, operationally and politically costly for a health care organization or public housing provider.  In addition to the expanding readiness of OCR, the Justice Department and other agencies to pursue investigations and enforcement of disability discrimination and other laws, physicians and other licensed professionals can expect that they may face disciplinary action by their applicable licensing boards, whose rules typically now make disability or other wrongful discrimination against patients a violation of their rules.  Meanwhile, the failure of health care organizations to effectively maintain processes to appropriately include and care for disabled other patients or constituents with special needs also can increase negligence exposure, undermine Joint Commission and other quality ratings, undermine efforts to qualify for public or private grant, partnerships or other similar arrangements, and create negative perceptions in the community.

Act To Manage & Mitigate Disability Risks

In the face of these growing risks ,  physicians, hospitals and their medical staffs, and other health care providers should review and tighten their policies, leases and other vendor contracts, practices and training to minimize their exposure to prosecution or other sanctions for disability discrimination.

In light of the expanding readiness of OCR, the Justice Department and other agencies to investigate and take action against health care providers for potential violations of the ADA, Section 504 and other federal discrimination and civil rights laws, health care organizations and their leaders should review and tighten their policies, practices, training, documentation, investigation, redress, discipline and other nondiscrimination policies and procedures.

Given a series of recent changes in the provisions of the ADA, discrimination regulations, and enforcement standards, this process generally should begin by reviewing the health care provider’s understanding and policies regarding disability and other discrimination to ensure that they comply with current legal and credentialing requirements and standards.  Once the organization confirms its understanding of current rules is up-to-date, the health care provider also should critically evaluate its operations to identify where its postings, policies, training, practices and operations need to be updated or tightened to meet these standards or avoid other risks.

In carrying out these activities, organizations and their leaders should keep in mind the critical role of training and oversight of staff and contractors plays in promoting and maintaining required operational compliance with these requirements.  Reported settlements reflect that the liability trigger often is discriminatory conduct by staff, contractors, or landlords in violation of both the law and the organization’s own policies.

To meet and maintain the necessary operational compliance with these requirements, organizations should both adopt and policies against prohibited discrimination and take the necessary steps to institutionalize compliance with these policies by providing ongoing staff and vendor training and oversight, contracting for and monitoring vendor compliance and other actions.  Organizations also should take advantage of opportunities to identify and resolve potential compliance concerns by revising patient and other processes and procedures to enhance the ability of the organization to learn about and redress potential charges without government intervention.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her presentations and programs include How to Ensure That Your Organization Is In Compliance With Regulations Governing Discrimination, as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on discrimination and cultural diversity, as well as a broad range of compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters.

Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see  here. About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources including:

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THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

 

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


Genesis Healthcare Disability HHS OCR Discrimination Settlement Reminder To Use Interpreters, Other Needed Accommodations For Disabled

March 5, 2013

 Health care providers dealing with patients with hearing, language, cognitive, or other disabilities are reminded to use care to provide interpreters or other accommodations when necessary to care for disabled or other language limited patients by a settlement announced with Genesis HealthCare (Genesis).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR)   announced today that Genesis has reached an agreement to settle OCR charges that it violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Act) by failing to provide an interpreter for a language impaired patient.  The latest in a growing list of enforcement actions by OCR against health care providers for failing to provide interpreters or other accommodations for disabled, English-as-a-second-language, or other language impaired patients, it reminds health care providers of the importance of providing appropriate interpreter or other accommodations needed to enable patients to properly understand and participate in their care.  The announcement comes as HHS is releasing new resources reminding health care providers and others of the need to provide appropriate language access resources to these and other patients and their caregivers with language challenges.

Genesis Settlement

As interpreted by OCR, the Act requires that health care and other facilities covered by the Act take appropriate steps to ensure effective communications with patients when delivering health care or other services.

The settlement follows an OCR investigation of a complaint that Genesis, one of the largest providers of senior care violated the Act by failing to provide a qualified interpreter to a resident at its skilled nursing facility in its Randallstown, Maryland.  Genesis operates more than 400 skilled nursing centers and assisted/senior living communities across 29 states.

According to OCR, an OCR investigation conducted under the Act found Genesis center staff at the facility harmed the health care and overall health status of the patient by not providing a qualified interpreter, evaluations of his care and discussions on the effects of his numerous medications and the risks caused by not following recommended treatments and prescription protocols. OCR charged the Genesis staff improperly relied on written notes and gestures to communicate with the resident—even while conducting a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation of him.  OCR concluded that a qualified sign language interpreter was necessary for the patient and staff to be able to communicate effectively with each other regarding treatment.

Under the settlement terms, all 400 Genesis skilled nursing facilities must comply with the terms and conditions of the settlement.  The settlement also requires Genesis to form an auxiliary aids and services hotline; create an advisory committee to provide guidance and direction on how to best communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing community; designate a monitor to conduct a self-assessment and get feedback from deaf and hard of hearing individuals and advocates and conduct outreach to promote awareness of hearing impairments and services that are available for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.  In addition Genesis will  pay monetary penalties for noncompliance with any terms of the agreement.

In announcing the settlement, OCR Director emphasized OCR’s commitment to enforcing the Act’s nondiscrimination provisions.  “This patient’s care was unnecessarily and significantly compromised by the stark absence of interpreter services,” said Rodriguez.  “My office continues its enforcement activities and work with providers, particularly large health care systems like Genesis, to make certain that compliance with nondiscrimination laws is a system wide obligation.”

The settlement follows two enforcement actions by OCR in early February to ensure deaf and hard of hearing individuals living in New York and Washington, D.C., have equal access to programs and services provided by local government agencies. Like the settlement announced today, both of those actions arose from complaints that individuals were denied interpreters.  In those cases, the needed interpreters were sign language interpreters in Cattaraugus County Department of Aging (CCDOA) in New York and the District of Columbia Children and Family Services Agency (DCCFSA).  OCR conducted investigations under the Actand Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which require that covered entities ensure effective communication for persons with disabilities.  Those actions resulted in the CCDOA voluntary resolution agreement, and the DCCFSA settlement agreement.

HHS Shares Language Access Resources

HHS views the availability of appropriate langauge accommodations as key to providing quality of care.  The effort includes persons facing not only disabilities impacting communications, but others with language barriers.  In support of its efforts to promote the availability and use of appropriate langauge accommodations, HSS recently shared its 2013 Language Access Plan (HHS LAP) for ensuring access to the Department’s programs and activities to people with limited English proficiency (LEP).  The LEP reflects HHS’ awareness that America’s population reflects diverse communications needs.  Nearly 20 percent of the population (55 million people) speaks a language other than English at home, 63 percent of hospitals treat LEP patients daily or weekly and more than 15 languages are frequently encountered by at least 20 percent of hospitals.   

In accordance with Executive Order 13166, Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency, the HHS LAP establishes the Department’s policy and strategy for serving persons with LEP and its commitment to the language access principals which state that people with LEP should have meaningful access to federally funded programs, activities, services and benefits.  The plan  available here urther serves as a blueprint for HHS Divisions to develop their own agency-specific language access plans. The HHS LAP is organized into ten cross-cutting elements with specific actions steps for HHS agencies to include in their respective agency-specific plans.  The ten elements include:

  • ELEMENT 1:   Assessment: Needs and Capacity
  • ELEMENT 2:   Oral Language Assistance Services
  • ELEMENT 3:   Written Translations
  • ELEMENT 4:   Policies and Procedures
  • ELEMENT 5:   Notification of the Availability of Language Assistance at no Cost
  • ELEMENT 6:   Staff Training
  • ELEMENT 7:   Assessment: Access and Quality
  • ELEMENT 8:   Stakeholder Consultation (New Element)
  • ELEMENT 9:   Digital Information (New Element)
  • ELEMENT 10: Grant Assurance and Compliance (New Element)

Hospitals and other health care providers should use these elements as guidelines for meeting the needs for language limited populations and patients, as well as to help structure the elements for assessment and accommodation of persons with disabilities impacting the abiity to communicate.

Enforcement Exposures Rising

The  settlement and Director Rodriguez’s statements should alert  health care providers and other public and private organizations of the need to strengthen their disability discrimination compliance and management practices to defend against rising exposures to actions by the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other agencies as well as private law suits.

As part of a broader emphasis on the enforcement of disability and other federal discrimination laws by the Obama Administration, Federal agencies are making investigation and prosecution of suspected disability discrimination by health industry and other organizations a priority.  OCR recently has announced several settlement agreements and issued letters of findings as part of its ongoing efforts to ensure compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the ADA well as various other federal nondiscrimination and civil rights laws.

Defending or paying to settle a disability discrimination charge brought by a private plaintiff, OCR or another agency, or others tends to be financially, operationally and politically costly for a health care organization or public housing provider.  In addition to the expanding readiness of OCR and other agencies to pursue investigations and enforcement of disability discrimination and other laws, the failure of health care organizations to effectively keep up processes to appropriately include and care for disabled other patients or constituents with special needs also can increase negligence exposure, undermine Joint Commission and other quality ratings, undermine efforts to qualify for public or private grant, partnerships or other similar arrangements, and create negative perceptions in the community.

Most health care and other U.S. businesses fully appreciate the growing disability discrimination exposures in employment but often are less aware of or ready to manage their responsibilities under the ADA public accommodation rules or other laws.

  • Employment Discrimination Under ADA

Title I of the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disability in various aspects of employment.  The ADA’s provisions on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations show Congress’s intent to protect the rights of applicants and employees to be assessed on merit alone, while protecting the rights of employers to make sure that individuals in the workplace can efficiently do the essential functions of their jobs.  An employer generally violates the ADA if it requires its employees to undergo medical examinations or submit to disability-related inquiries that are not related to how the employee performs his or her job duties, or if it requires its employees to disclose over broad medical history or medical records.  Title I of the ADA also generally requires employers to make  reasonable accommodations to employees’ and applicants’ disabilities as long as  this does not pose an undue hardship or the employer the employer otherwise proves employing a person with a disability with reasonable accommodation could not end significant safety concerns.  Employers generally bear the burden of proving these or other defenses.  Employers are also prohibited from excluding individuals with disabilities unless they show that the exclusion is consistent with business necessity and they are prohibited from retaliating against employees for opposing practices contrary to the ADA. 

Violations of the ADA can expose businesses to substantial liability.  Violations of the employment provisions of the ADA may be prosecuted by the EEOC or by private lawsuits and can result in significant judgments.  Employees or applicants that can prove they were subjected to prohibited disability discrimination under the ADA generally can recover actual damages, attorneys’ fees, and up to $300,000 of exemplary damages (depending on the size of the employer).   

  • ADA Public Accommodation & Other Federal Discrimination

In addition to the well-known and expanding employment discrimination risks, public and private health care and housing providers also increasingly face disability discrimination exposures under various federal laws such as the public accommodation and other disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA, Section 504, the Civil Rights Act and various other laws that the Obama Administration views as high enforcement priorities.

Section 504 requires recipients of Medicare, Medicaid, HUD, Department of Education, welfare and most other federal assistance programs funds including health care, education, housing services providers, state and local governments to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs, services, or activities receiving federal financial assistance. The ADA extends the prohibition against disability discrimination to private providers and other businesses as well as state and local governments including but not limited to health care providers reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid or various other federal programs The ADA requirements extend most federal disability discrimination prohibits to health care and other businesses even if they do not receive federal financial assistance to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to their programs, services or activities.  In many instances, these federal discrimination laws both prohibit discrimination and require health care and other regulated businesses to put in place reasonable accommodations needed to ensure that their services are accessible and available to persons with disabilities.  Meanwhile the Civil Rights Act and other laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin, race, sex, age, religion and various other grounds.  These federal rules impact almost all public and private health care providers as well as a broad range housing and related service providers.

As a result of its stepped up enforcement of the ADA, Section 504 and other civil rights and nondiscrimination rules, OCR is racking up an impressive list of settlements with health care providers, housing and other businesses for violating the ADA, Section 504 or other related civil rights rules enforced by OCR.  While OCR continues to wage this enforcement battle in the programs it administers, the Departments of Justice, Housing & Urban Development, Education, Labor and other federal agencies also are waging war against what the Obama Administration perceives as illegal discrimination in other areas.  Along side their own enforcement activities, OCR and other federal agencies are maintaining a vigorous public outreach to disabled and other individuals protected by federal disabilities and other civil rights laws intended to make them aware of and to encourage them to act to enforce these rights. To be ready to defend against the resulting risk of claims and other enforcement actions created by these activities, health care, housing and other U.S. providers and businesses need to tighten compliance and risk management procedures and take other steps to prepare themselves to respond to potential charges and investigations.

Enforcement of Discrimination & Other Civil Rights Laws Obama Administration Priority Putting Public & Private Providers At Risk

A growing list of ADA and other disability discrimination law enforcement actions against private and public health care and housing providers, state and local governments and other businesses under the Obama Administration make it increasingly critical that health care organizations and other businesses manage disability discrimination risk both in their employment practices and their other business operations.

As for employment discrimination, violators of these and other federal discrimination prohibitions applicable to the offering and delivery of services and products also face exposure to large civil damage awards to private plaintiffs as well as federal program disqualification, penalties and other federal agency enforcement. Unfortunately, while most businesses and governmental leaders generally are sensitive to the need to maintain effective compliance programs to prevent and redress employment discrimination, the awareness of the applicability and non-employment related disability and other discrimination risk management and compliance lags far behind.

When considering these potential exposures, many private health care organizations mistakenly assume that OCR’s enforcement actions are mostly a problem for state and local government agencies because state and local agencies and service providers frequently in the past have been the target of OCR discrimination charges.  As demonstrated by the ADA exposures are high for both public and private providers, however.  OCR , the Department of Justice and other federal and state agencies can and do investigate and prosecute  a lot of public and private physicians, hospitals, insurers and other private health care and other federal program participants.  

Consequently, disability discrimination management requires more than employment discrimination management.  The Obama Administration also has trumpeted its commitment to the aggressive enforcement of the public accommodation provisions of the ADA and other federal disability discrimination laws.  In June, 2012, for instance, President Obama himself made a point of reaffirming his administration’s “commitment to fighting discrimination, and to addressing the needs and concerns of those living with disabilities.”

As part of its significant commitment to disability discrimination enforcement, the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department has aggressively enforced the public accommodation provisions of the ADA and other federal disability discrimination laws against state agencies and private businesses that it perceives to have improperly discriminated against disabled individuals.  For instance, the Justice Department entered into a landmark settlement agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia, which will shift Virginia’s developmental disabilities system from one heavily reliant on large, state-run institutions to one focused on safe, individualized, and community-based services that promote integration, independence and full participation by people with disabilities in community life. The agreement expands and strengthens every aspect of the Commonwealth’s system of serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in integrated settings, and it does so through a number of services and supports.  The Justice Department has a website dedicated to disabilities law enforcement, which includes links to settlements, briefs, findings letters, and other materials. The settlement agreements are a reminder that private businesses and state and local government agencies alike should exercise special care to prepare to defend their actions against potential disability or other Civil Rights discrimination challenges.  All organizations, whether public or private need to make sure both that their organizations, their policies, and people in form and in action understand and comply with current disability and other nondiscrimination laws.  When reviewing these responsibilities, many state and local governments and private businesses may need to update their understanding of current requirements.  Statutory, regulatory or enforcement changes have expanded the scope and applicability of disability and various other federal nondiscrimination and other laws and risks of charges of discrimination. 

Invest in Prevention To Minimize Liability Risks

In light of the expanding readiness of the Justice Department, OCR, HUD, EEOC and other agencies to investigate and take action against health care providers for potential violations of the ADA, Section 504 and other federal discrimination and civil rights laws, health care organizations and their leaders should review and tighten their policies, practices, training, documentation, investigation, redress, discipline and other nondiscrimination policies and procedures. In carrying out these activities, organizations and their leaders should keep in mind the critical role of training and oversight of staff and contractors plays in promoting and maintaining required operational compliance with these requirements.  Reported settlements reflect that the liability trigger often is discriminatory conduct by staff, contractors, or landlords in violation of both the law and the organization’s own policies.

To achieve and maintain the necessary operational compliance with these requirements, organizations should both adopt and policies against prohibited discrimination and take the necessary steps to institutionalize compliance with these policies by providing ongoing staff and vendor training and oversight, contracting for and monitoring vendor compliance and other actions.  Organizations also should take advantage of opportunities to identify and resolve potential compliance concerns by revising patient and other processes and procedures to enhance the ability of the organization to learn about and redress potential charges without government intervention.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her presentations and programs include How to Ensure That Your Organization Is In Compliance With Regulations Governing Discrimination, as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on discrimination and cultural diversity, as well as a broad range of compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters.

Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

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OCR Requires Health Care Providers To Improve Services for Limited English Speakers, Hearing Impaired As HHS Steps Up Enforcement of Federal Discrimination Laws

July 14, 2009

Health care providers should review the adequacy of translation and other mechanisms required to allow limited English speakers, hearing impaired, and other language limited populations effective access to services in light of recent enforcement actions taken by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) against health care providers for discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal discrimination laws. 

As part of a broader Obama Administration initiative to make prevention and redress prohibited national origin, disabilities and other discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications a priority, HHS has announced that OCR will hold health care providers accountable for ensuring effective and adequate access by individuals seeking services having limited English language proficiency, hearing loss or other language or communication restrictions impacting on their ability to access care and services.

Medco Health Solutions, Inc. National Origination Settlement

On June 22, 2009, OCR announced that national pharmacy benefit management company Medco Health Solutions, Inc. had agreed to implement a multi-faceted plan to improve services to limited and non-English speaking members in 2009. 

The commitment to take corrective action by the nation’s largest mail-order pharmacy operation arose from OCR’s investigation of a complaint filed with OCR on behalf of a Spanish-speaking member. The complaint alleged that Medco violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) by failing to provide limited English proficiency members (LEP members) with meaningful access to mail-order pharmacy services and other pharmacy benefit management services. 

Under Title VI, health care providers and other recipients of federal financial assistance are required to take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to their programs by limited English proficient individuals who are eligible to receive their services.

Under the commitment letter, Medco agreed to implement a number of measures to strengthen its provision of language assistance services to LEP members starting with those for Spanish-speaking members in 2009.  The corrective actions agreed to by Medco include:

  • Expanding its pool of bilingual customer service representatives who speak Spanish
  • Revising its systems to enhance its ability to route Spanish-speaking members who need help with prescription drug questions or problems directly to bilingual staff, including pharmacists where possible and appropriate
  • Continuing to use a telephonic interpreter service available for more than 150 other languages to communicate with other non-English speakers. 
  • Implementing a critical improvement in Medco’s internal computer systems that will flag language preference on an ongoing basis to aid effective communication with limited English proficient persons during member-Medco contact. 
  • Continuing to improve its ability to identify and track individuals’ language preferences so that important written communications and outbound telephone calls are placed to members in their primary language. 
  • Reviewing how best to notify limited English proficient members that language assistance services are available.
  • Developing an evaluation process with respect to interpreter competency.  Staff at call centers and pharmacies expected to communicate directly with members in languages other than English will be assessed as to language proficiency, and those serving as interpreters will be assessed for interpreting competency. 
  • Training all relevant staff on system changes intended to improve access to limited English proficient members, and will monitor the results of these efforts through periodic assessments.

Read the Medco Commitment Letter here.

Scottsdale Healthcare – Osborn (SHO) Voluntary Resolution Agreement

 The Medico Commitment Letter follows OCR’s April, 2008 announcement that d a signed Resolution Agreement that requiring Scottsdale Healthcare – Osborn (“SHO”) a 337–bed full–service Arizona hospital to improve access to sign language interpreters and other services required for hearing impaired patients to effectively access services.  The SHO VRA resolves a disability discrimination complaint against SHO brought by a patient with severe hearing loss, who reported that she was denied a sign language interpreter when treated in the SHO emergency room and intensive care unit.

Following OCR’s investigation of the complaint, SHO among other things agreed to: (1) affirm its compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794; (2) issue and post revised policies to ensure that appropriate auxiliary aids, including sign language interpreters or video interpretation services, are provided to deaf or hard-of-hearing patients or companions within a two hour time period; (3) develop procedures to assess the sign language interpreter needs of patients or companions; (4) train hospital personnel and physicians on its revised policies and procedures to ensure effective communication; (5) place TTY lines throughout its facility; (6) maintain a centralized telecommunication number 24-hours per day, 7-days per week for sign language interpreter requests; and (7) provide regular compliance reports to OCR. Read SHO VRA here

Health Care Providers Should Act To Manage Risks As Obama Administration Makes Enhanced Investigation and Enforcement of Federal Discrimination Laws A Priority

Health care providers and other businesses covered by Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal discrimination laws should heed the Medco and SHO actions of the advisability of taking prompt action to review and if necessary, strengthen the adequacy of reasonable accommodations necessary to enable individuals with limited English proficiency, hearing or other language impairments to access services.

Beyond the adequacy of services to address language impairments, health care providers and others also generally should anticipate that the willingness by the OCR under the Obama Administration to act on the Medco and SHO complaints reflects a heightened willingness by federal agencies to investigate and enforce disabilities, national origin and charges of federal discrimination violations by health care providers and others by OCR and other federal agencies under the Obama Administration.  Review Obama Administration Civil Rights Enforcement Agenda here. While OCR took a series of enforcement actions under the predecessor Bush Administration, this announced renewed emphasis on federal discrimination law enforcement coupled by the series of actions taken by OCR and other federal agencies since January, 2009 reflects that OCR and other agencies are acting on the direction of President Obama to make prevention and redress of disabilities and other discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications a priority. Read about other recent OCR federal discrimination enforcement activates here. See also, e.g., recent discrimination policies and enforcement activities by Department of Justice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Medco and SHO actions, as well as a series of other recently announced enforcement actions reflect that OCR and other federal agencies are likely to continue to expand investigation and enforcement of disability and other violations by health care providers of federal disability and other discrimination laws in recent months.  Health care providers and others regulated by these federal discrimination laws should consider auditing the adequacy of existing practices, reaffirming their commitment to compliance to workforce members and constituents, retraining workforce and taking other appropriate steps to help prevent illegal discrimination within their organization and to position their organization to respond and defend against potential discrimination investigations or charges.

The author of this article, Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP Health Care Practice Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health care practitioners and other businesses and business leaders to establish, administer, investigate and federal and state discrimination and other compliance and internal control policies and practices to reduce risk under federal and state health care, discrimination and other laws. Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer’s practice emphasizes assisting health industry clients to monitor compliance and other legal and operational risks and to design, administer and defend internal controls and other risk management practices to mitigate these exposures.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here.  

If you need assistance investigating the adequacy of your current compliance efforts, with these or other compliance concerns, wish to inquire about arranging for compliance audit or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, CTT Health Care Practice Group Chair, at cstamer@cttlegal.com, 214.270.2402 or your other favorite Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorney. 

Other Helpful Resources & Other Information

We hope that this information is useful to you.   If you found these updates of interest, you also be interested in one or more of the following other recent articles published on our electronic Solutions Law Press Health Care Update publication available here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please register to receive this Solutions Law Press Health Care Update here and be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail- by creating or updating your profile at here. You can access other recent updates and other informative publications and resources provided by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorneys and get information about its attorneys’ experience, briefings, speeches and other credentials here.

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©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  All rights reserved. 


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