OCR Says “No” To Widely Used COVID-19 Practice Of Allocating Respirators & Other Scarce COVID-19 Care Based On Pre-Existing Medical Conditions

This week’s Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) announcement of that the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PDH) has agreed to using a list of preexisting health care conditions to decide patient priority for access to respirators and other scarce resources during the COVID-19 health care emergency provides warns other State, local, tribal, and territorial public health policymakers, healthcare systems leadership, and other public emergency decision-makers and other public or private HHS funds recipients (collectively “COVID responders”) that use pre-existing health conditions or other civil rights act protected status of patients to rationing scarce medical resources like ventilators or other constricted resources  Coupled with other recent guidance warning COVID responders against discrimination and to provide all legally required accommodations for individuals with pre-existing conditions or disorders constituting disabilities, English as a second language, religion, age or other protected status under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Section 1557”) and other federal civil rights laws, health care providers, public health authorities  and other COVID-19 responders should act immediately to review and take any action needed to correct civil rights law deficiencies in their own COVID-19 emergency policies or operations.

PDH Enforcement Shows Agencies’ Serious About COVID-19 Civil Rights Enforcement

OCR’s April 28, 2020, OCR announcement of PDH’s agreement to revise its Interim Pennsylvania Crisis Standards of Care for Pandemic Guidelines (CSC Guidelines) to revolve an April 3, 2020 civil rights complaint that PDH’s COVID-19 pandemic response plan illegally discriminated against patients with disabilities by denying or lowing the care priority of patients with certain listed preexisting health conditions shows that OCR and other federal agencies are carrying through on promises to take quick enforcement action against COVID-19 responders that violate federal discrimination and other civil rights laws when dealing with the COVID-19 public health emergency in the March 14, 2020  Crisis Standards of Care and Civil Rights Laws guidance (“CSC Guidelines”) and in OCR’s March 28, 2020 Civil Rights, HIPAA, and the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Bulletin (the “Bulletin”).

The CSC Guidelines jointly issued by the Health Care Resilience Taskforce (composed of HHS, FEMA, and the Army Corps of Engineers) warned public health, health care providers and other pandemic decisionmakers against adopting or applying policies in for managing ventilators or other constricted resources during the COVID-19 or other emergencies that negatively impact vulnerable populations (e.g., older adults and persons with disabilities).   After reminding state, local, tribal, and territorial policymakers, healthcare systems leadership, and other decision-makers that civil rights laws are not suspended or waived in times of disaster, the CSC Guidelines cautioned “Federal civil rights laws and regulations apply, and have not been suspended, during the COVID19 national health emergency. Federal fund recipients must comply with those requirements.”

OCR reaffirmed the CSC Guidelines warnings in its March 28, 2020 Bulletin reminding health care providers and other HHS fund recipients the laudable goal of providing care quickly and efficiently during the COVID-19 health care emergency still must comply with federal civil rights prohibitions against disability discrimination in HHS funded programs under Section 1557, Section 504, and other civil rights laws, stating:

“persons with disabilities should not be denied medical care on the basis of stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about a person’s relative “worth” based on the presence or absence of disabilities or age. Decisions by covered entities concerning whether an individual is a candidate for treatment should be based on an individualized assessment of the patient based on the best available objective medical evidence.”

The PDH disability discrimination investigation and resolution announced April 28th resulted from OCR’s investigation of a civil rights complaint filed less than a week after OCR released the Bulletin by Disability Rights Pennsylvania and other disability rights groups.  Like many other regional and facility pandemic response plans, the CSC Guidelines listed specific impairments or disabilities that would lead to greater deprioritization of patients for care during a pandemic emergency.  The April 3 complaint against PDH charged that Pennsylvania’s CSC Guidelines violated Section 504, Title II, and Section 1557 by unlawfully authorizing the denial of treatment to individuals with disabilities when prioritizing access to critical care and ventilators.  The complaint also alleged that the guidelines did not require an individualized assessment, but instead used “preexisting conditions that are disabilities” to determine a priority score.

OCR PDH COVID-19 Civil Rights Investigation & Settlement

Consistent with the warning provided in the Bulletin, OCR moved with rare speed to investigate the complaint and notify PDH of its civil rights concerns. To resolve potential OCR civil rights charges, OCR announced April 28, 2020 that PDH agreed to accept technical assistance from OCR and make the following revisions to its CDC guidelines:

  • Remove criteria that automatically deprioritized persons on the basis of particular disabilities,
  • Require individualized assessments based on the best available, relevant, and objective medical evidence to support triaging decisions, and
  • Ensure at no one is denied care based on stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about a person’s “worth” based on the presence or absence of disabilities.

Based on these “responsive actions and the revisions” to its guidelines in response to OCR’s concern, the OCR announcement states that  OCR is closing its complaint investigation as satisfactorily resolved without a finding of liability while noting that this does not preclude future OCR enforcement in cases of potential discriminatory implementation of Pennsylvania’s policies by any covered health care provider.

Other Public Health, Health Care & Other COVID Responders Should Confirm COVID-19 Civil Rights Response Compliance

The PDH announcement provides a strong warning to health care providers, public health authorities and other COVID-19 responders to act quickly to evaluate and make any necessary adjustments to redress any questionable disability or other civil rights concerns in their own COVID-19 or other emergency response plans or practices.

Even before the COVID-19 health care emergency, disability and other civil rights law enforcment already was a high priority for OCR and other federal agencies. See e.g., Civil Rights Settlement Highlights Health Industry Discrimination Risks As OCR Prepares To Broaden RequirementsOCR’s Proposed Sex & Other Discrimination Rules Spell Headaches & New Risks For Health Care Providers, Insurers & OthersCheck Defensibility Of Policies & Practices Given New HHS/DOJ Joint Disability Law Technical AssistanceImportant Lessons For Health Care Providers From Michigan State Settlement Of OCR Larry Nassar Sexual Abuse InvestigationCognitive Disability Exclusion from Heart Transplant List Placement Prohibited.

The PDH announcement clearly alerts other health care providers and COVID-19 responders that OCR does not plan to slacken civil rights discrimination investigation or enforcement against health care providers or others because of the COVID-19 health care emergency.  Rather, the PDH investigaiton and resolution make clear that COVID-19 responders need to use particular care take the well-documented steps necessary to ensure they can defend their ongoing compliance with disability discrimination and other federal civil rights laws throughout the COVID-19 health care emergency.

In this respect, OCR’s PDH announcement makes a point of clearly warning other public health, health care providers and other recipients of HHS funding across the nation against using preexisting conditions or other prohibited stereotypes or classifications of patients without individual assessments to triage and prioritize access to care or other resources for purposes of their COVID-19 or other pandemic planning or response.  To emphasize the importance of continued compliance with these civil rights laws, the Bulletin quotes OCR Director Roger Severino, as stating: “Triage decisions must be based on objective and individualized evidence, not discriminatory assumptions about the prognoses of persons with disabilities” and “we must ensure that triage decisions are free from discrimination both in their creation and their application, and we will remain vigilant in achieving that goal.”

These warnings and OCR’s quick enforcement action make clear that OCR’s commitment to hold health care providers, state and local public health, and other COVID-19 responders accountable for ensuring their COVID-19 pandemic plans and operations don’t impermissibly discriminate against individuals with or needing accommodations for  disabilities, limited English skills, religious beliefs, age or other status protected by HHS’ civil rights rules.  Meanwhile, OCR’s reported willingness to accept PHD’s prompt corrective action without imposing financial sanctions also signals the probable willingness of OCR to show similar leniency to other health care providers or COVID-19 responders that for acting promptly to self-identify and redress potentially questionable past COVID-19 restricted resource allocation practices in response to the PDH announcement and other COVID-19 civil rights compliance guidance.

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 nondiscrimination and accommodation requirements and the often significant judgements awarded to private litigant victims, state and local public health, health care providers and other COVID providers generally will want to review and tighten as advisable their existing practices to reduce the risk of being incuring penalties or judgments, being sanctioned, excluded or a combination of these consequences for violation of these nondiscrimination and other civil rights requirements by among other things:

  1. Auditing the adequacy of their pandemic response and other plans, policies, practices and actions for allocating scarce resources and care during the COVID-19 health emergency and in other scarce resource situations;
  2. Developing a strategy and procedures for receiving, investigating and responding with appropriate documentation to complaints or other indicators of potential civil rights violations or risks;
  3. Taking prompt, documented action to reform and strengthen civil rights policies, practices and controls, training, investigations and other compliance and risk management;
  4. Explore potential strategies, if any, to mitigate potential liability exposure to OCR or private litigant investigations or enforcement from past, ongoing or future policies or actions; and
  5. Other actions to maintain and demonstrate their organization-wide culture of compliance with applicable civil rights laws.

Since organization and their leaders likely will be required to uncover and discuss legally and politically sensitive information in the course of these activities, public health, health care and other COVID responders are encouraged to consider engaging qualified legal counsel with relevant experience to advise and guide them in conducting, maintaining and using attorney-client privilege and other procedures to safeguard sensitive analysis, discussions and work product from avoidable discovery and other processes to promote the legal effectiveness and defensibility of their actions.

More Information & Resources

We hope this update is helpful. 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.  In addition to this update, the author of this article also is extensively published and frequent speaker on pandemic and other infectious disease, and other health industry crisis preparedness and response, and many other regulatory compliance, risk management and operations, public policy and other concerns. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

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About the Author

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney, management and regulatory affairs consultant, author and lecturer, who has worked extensively on pandemic and other crisis planning, preparedness and response and other business change, risk, compliance and operation management throughout her 30 plus year career.

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, and a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation, the Texas Bar Foundation and the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Ms. Stamer is widely recognized for her pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on domestic and international, public and private sector health care and managed care, workforce and performance, safety, legal and operational compliance and risk management, crisis preparedness and response, and other essential legal and operational concerns.

Her experience includes extensive work domestically and internationally with hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing and other long term care, rehabilitation and other health care facilities; physicians, medical staff and other health care providers and organizations; accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations;  health care management and technology and other health and managed care industry clients; self-insured and insured health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, insurers and service providers and other payers; employers; billing, utilization management, quality, management services organizations, group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; consultants; investors; EHR, claims, payroll and other technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; health industry advocacy and other service providers and groups and other health and managed care industry clients as well as federal and state legislative, regulatory, investigatory and enforcement bodies and agencies.

Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and the author of “Privacy and the Pandemic Workshop” for the Association of State and Territorial Health Plans and a multitude of other publications and workshops on health and other disaster and other crisis preparedness, risk management and response, as well as a multitude of other health care, workforce and other management and regulatory affairs publications and presentations, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership through her extensive and diverse involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations.  Examples of these involvements include her service as the current American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting and a former JCEB Council Representative;  past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group; former ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group Chair and Past Chair and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefits Committee;  former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former technical advisor to the National Physicians Council on Health Care Policy; former member of the Stem Cell Advisory Committee; and in a multitude of other professional, trade, civic and community service organizations . For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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©2020 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™   All other rights reserved.   For information about republication or other use, please contact Ms. Stamer here.