Federal Civil Rights Resolution Makes Clear Hospital Visitor Policies Nationwide Must Accommodate Patients with Disabilities During  COVID-19 Pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, in response to the first federal complaint challenging discriminatory hospital “no-visitor” policies, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services announced a resolution making clear that federal law requires hospitals and the state agencies overseeing them to modify policies to ensure patients with disabilities can safely access the in-person supports needed to benefit from medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strict no-visitor policies put in place at hospitals have prevented patients with disabilities from safely receiving support from family members or staff necessary for them to effectively communicate with medical personnel or otherwise receive equal access to medical treatment. No-visitor policies have disproportionately impacted Black people with disabilities, who have higher rates of infection and hospitalization. Accommodations to these policies are required by federal civil rights laws.

The complaint was filed against the State of Connecticut by national disability organizations The Arc of the United States, Center for Public Representation, and CommunicationFIRST, together with Connecticut-based organizations Disability Rights Connecticut, The Arc of Connecticut and Independence Northwest: Center for Independent Living of Northwest CT. The groups alleged that Connecticut’s COVID-19 no-visitor policy denied people with disabilities equal access to medical care and effective communication, deprived them of their right to make informed decisions and provide informed consent, and resulted in harms such as unnecessary physical and chemical restraints. The groups filed a separate complaint against Hartford Hospital  regarding its discriminatory treatment of 73-year-old “Patient G.S.,” who has speech and short-term memory disabilities but was not allowed access to in-person supports necessary for her to communicate, which was also recently resolved and publicly announced today.

“We are thrilled that this resolution will help prevent other patients around the country from having to experience the discrimination, physical pain, and emotional harm endured by Patient G.S.,” said Tauna Szymanski, Executive Director of CommunicationFIRST. “Ensuring states and hospitals safely balance public health concerns with the obligation to ensure patients with disabilities can communicate effectively has been a top priority for CommunicationFIRST during the pandemic.”

“Today’s resolution sets a national precedent for how states and hospitals can ensure their policies comply with federal disability laws,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy at the Center for Public Representation. “The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the discrimination that people with disabilities face in accessing healthcare. We appreciate OCR’s leadership and collaboration with us to ensure people with disabilities can access the care they need.”

Highlights from the hospital policy announced by OCR and Connecticut include that it:

  • Requires all hospitals and other health care facilities to allow designated persons (family members, staff, or others) to support any disabled patient that may need such support;
  • Requires hospitals to provide available personal protective equipment (PPE) to support persons to keep them safe;
  • Includes procedures for screening support persons for COVID-19 symptoms and for supporters to safely take breaks and leave and re-enter the hospital; and
  • Encourages hospitals to mitigate the risk associated with support persons supporting COVID-19-positive patients.

“Many with intellectual and developmental disabilities are being deprived of basic rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have already seen dire consequences from this discriminatory treatment. We thank OCR for today’s resolution and will continue to fight for the health and well-being of all people with disabilities,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.