Patients with disabilities must receive the same level of lifesaving medical treatment from hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic as able-bodied patients, the Trump administration said.
As states and hospitals develop plans about where best to prioritize resources in the event that care needs to be rationed, the administration issued a bulletin on Saturday to say it is still enforcing civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age and sex.
“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,” said Roger Severino, director of the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Severino said decisions about whether an individual is a candidate for treatment should be based on the best available objective medical evidence.
Advocates have raised the alarm that the disaster preparedness plans in certain states would prioritize the treatment of able-bodied individuals over people with physical and intellectual disabilities.
Severino told reporters on Saturday that his office has received complaints, and is in the process of opening a number of civil rights investigations. He would not comment on any specific cases.
According to a report from ProPublica, advocates filed complaints seeking to clarify the plans in Alabama and Washington.
For example, Alabama’s criteria for ventilator triage says that “persons with severe mental retardation, advanced dementia or severe traumatic brain injury may be poor candidates for ventilator support.”
“We are not a society guided by ruthless utilitarianism,” Severino said. “Persons with disabilities, with limited English skills, older persons, should not simply be put at the end of the line when it comes to distribution of needed medical care.”
Health systems nationwide have been grappling with shortages of basic medical supplies like masks and ventilators as the number of COVID-19 patients grows rapidly.
However, Severino said the administration’s guidance was for hypothetical scenarios only.
He echoed recent comments made by Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, that states do not currently need a large influx of ventilators.
“As of right now, on the question of ventilator allocation .. we have sufficient supply. We are dealing with reality and potential ‘what if’ scenarios,” Severino said.