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As COVID-19 Infects More Americans, People with Disabilities Demand That Hospitals Do Not Discriminate

As infection rates surge and hospitals struggle, people with preexisting medical conditions warn against discrimination in plans to ration life-saving care.

Washington, D.C., Oct. 26 – Hospitals across the country are scrambling to deal with a massive wave of new coronavirus cases, with new data showing more than 80,000 daily infections. This surge of cases is threatening to overwhelm strained hospital resources and push medical providers into making life or death decisions. Already, medical centers in Utah and Texas are contemplating plans to ration care, potentially leaving Americans with pre-existing conditions and disabilities to die from COVID-19.

The disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility urges hospitals to follow the law and not discriminate on the basis of disability, but rather treat patients with disabilities equally.

Matan Koch headshot

Matan Koch

“Millions of Americans – myself included – are at high risk under the medical rationing plans offered by certain states if we contract the virus,” said Matan Koch, who is a quadriplegic with asthma and the Director of RespectAbility’s California office. A graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, he nonetheless knows what it means to face discrimination everywhere, including in the healthcare system, because of preconceptions about disability and quality-of-life.

Back in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took swift action to remind hospitals of their obligations to respect civil rights and prohibit discrimination even in this time of crisis. Similar leadership is needed once again as the pandemic continues to kill more Americans.

Clear direction against discrimination is all the more important due to the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 is having on the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Data shows that fully 20 percent of people who died from COVID-19 were African Americans. In an interview with NPR, Samantha Artiga, director of the Disparities Policy Project at the Kaiser Family Foundation noted that “the findings very consistently show that people of color are really bearing the heaviest burden of COVID-19 at every stage, from risk of exposure, to access to testing, to severity of the illness and eventually death.” This creates even greater risk considering the intersectionality between the disability community and the BIPOC community.

“Our leaders at the federal, state and local level have a moral responsibility to take decisive action against discrimination, model public health best practices and encourage universal mask-wearing,” said RespectAbility’s Policy and Practices Director, Philip Kahn-Pauli. “If everyone wore a mask and limited social contact, we could save thousands of lives.” The best available statistical models show that increasing mask usage across the country could easily save up to 130,000 Americans from contracting COVID-19.

At the time of writing, more than 40,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 and the United States already has witnessed more than 8 million coronavirus infections.

For more information or to report discrimination in healthcare, please visit the website of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)  at https://www.hhs.gov/ocr/index.html. This is the federal agency that is responsible for enforcing civil rights protections in healthcare settings.

At the state level, the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) system works to protect the rights of all individuals with disabilities. To seek legal assistance for disability-related issues, please find your state P&A online: https://www.ndrn.org/about/ndrn-member-agencies.

Meet the Author

Philip Pauli
Philip Pauli

Philip Kahn-Pauli is the Policy and Practices Director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. He works with state leaders to develop solutions for youth with disabilities, support job seekers with disabilities and open pathways into the workforce. To reach him, email philipp@respectability.org.

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