Forecast 2014: Making Doctor's Offices ADA Accessible

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Michelle Duprey
Michelle Duprey

What's the next big thing in disability civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

One rapidly developing area is accessibility of health care. The ADA was signed more than 23 years ago, and yet, it is still in its early development as it relates to health care. Over the past few years, we have seen rise in ADA actions alleging discrimination in the provision of health care services to individuals with disabilities.

Nearly 9 percent of New Haveners with disabilities report that there have been times they needed health care but the facilities were inaccessible to them. That's works out to be roughly 3,000 people in New Haven alone. Now some individuals with disabilities are starting to take action.

Many of the actions under the ADA involve a health care provider not communicating effectively with deaf or hard-of-hearing patients. Effective communication with such individuals may require the provision of sign-language interpreter, video relay interpreting or assisted listening devices. Here in Connecticut, a consent decree was reached in 2001 between the Connecticut Association of the Deaf and 10 hospitals assuring effective communication for patients who are deaf. Similar cases have been brought successfully around the country. One New Jersey doctor who refused to provide a sign language interpreter to a deaf patient lost at trial and the jury awarded the plaintiff $400,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. None of the judgment was covered by his malpractice insurance.

We know that with age comes disability — not only hearing loss but mobility and sight issues emerge. As the number of senior citizens increase in Connecticut, many will find accessibility barriers to health care. Just ask health care providers if their mammography machine is wheelchair accessible, or if the exam table in the doctor's office lowers for easy transfer for someone with arthritis. The answers you get will be shocking.

To combat this apparent problem, the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 announced the establishment nationwide the Barrier-free Health Care Initiative, under will officials will "target their enforcement efforts on critical areas for individuals with disabilities." The Justice Department has also issued written guidance, a publication called "Access to Medical Care for Individuals with Mobility Disabilities," to help health care provides make their environments more accessible.

Physical Barriers

The government and private plaintiffs have already brought numerous lawsuits across the country against health care facilities. As part of a typical settlement, facilities are asked to undertake an accessibility review, ensure that at least 10 percent of all new equipment purchased accommodates people with disabilities, and develop policies and procedures to allow individuals with disabilities to make accommodation requests that will meet their particular needs.

While most of the litigation has been focused on large hospitals, small medical practices and service providers should take note of the ADA, review potential barriers and make plans for their removal. They should do this not only because the law may require it, but also because it is good for business. If a medical practice becomes inaccessible for patients with mobility problems because it has two steps to enter into the building, they might decide to go elsewhere. So it might make good business sense to add a ramp.

The federal government provides a variety of tax incentives for health care providers (along with other businesses) to remove barriers like steps, widen doorways, buy accessible exam tables or hire sign language interpreters.

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