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OCR Resolves Three Discrimination Complaints After Medstar Health System Ensures Patients With Disabilities Can Have Support Persons in Health Care Settings During Covid-19 Pandemic

Today, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services announces the resolution of three disability discrimination complaints to ensure that patients with disabilities are allowed access to support persons in MedStar Health hospitals and care locations during the COVID-19 pandemic.  A support person may be a family member, personal care assistant, similar disability service provider, or other individual knowledgeable about the management or care of the patient who is authorized to assist the patient in making decisions. 

None of the individuals in the complaints had COVID-19, but all were impacted by MedStar Health’s temporary visitor restrictions adopted as infection control measures under the COVID-19 public health emergency, which they alleged denied them the support they needed for their disabilities to ensure equal access to health care.  The three complaints alleged that the patients were denied their support persons.  Each patient had varying support needs, including (1) a patient with neuro-cognitive deficits from a stroke, partial blindness, and cancer who was denied a support person while seeking treatment for seizure symptoms in the emergency department at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Maryland; (2)  a patient with hearing loss and brain dysfunction, causing disorientation and memory loss,  who was denied a support person while recovering from heart surgery at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.; and (3) a patient with advanced neuro-muscular autoimmune disease, causing memory loss as well as physical impairments, who was denied a support person when admitted to the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. for a pre-scheduled surgery.

In all three instances, the patients with disabilities alleged that they were denied support persons because of temporary visitor restrictions adopted by MedStar as infection control measures under the COVID-19 public health emergency.  Without their support persons, the complainants collectively alleged they were denied effective communication with their treatment teams, denied the ability to make informed decisions and provide consent, and were subjected unnecessarily to physical and pharmacological restraints.

OCR enforces Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, two federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in programs receiving Federal financial assistance.

OCR worked with the complainants and MedStar Health to resolve the issues in their complaints through OCR’s early complaint resolution process and to provide technical assistance on the application of federal disability law requirements.  MedStar Health revised its policy to clearly distinguish between “visitors” and “support persons,” who perform specific disability-related functions for patients with disabilities when necessary to have an equal opportunity to obtain and benefit from health care services.  MedStar’s policy applies to all its health care locations throughout Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia, encompassing 10 hospitals, 14 urgent care centers, 7 cancer treatment centers and over 100 locations providing services including physical therapy, orthopedics, heart and vascular care.

The resolution and revised MedStar Health System policy balances hospitals’ practical need to protect staff, patients, and visitors from infection with the right of patients with disabilities to effective communication with hospital staff and an equal opportunity to benefit from hospital services.   

Robinsue Frohboese, Acting Director of OCR said, “While recognizing the safety considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic, civil rights protections remain in full force and effect and MedStar Health’s modifications in its practices ensure that patients with disabilities get the support to which they are entitled in a safe and effective way.” Frohboese concluded, “OCR’s work throughout this pandemic has highlighted practical ways to make reasonable modifications to afford persons with disabilities their full rights under the law.” 

To see MedStar Health System’s updated policy please visit:

For more information about how OCR is protecting civil rights during COVID-19, please visit:  

To learn more about non-discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age, and disability; conscience and religious freedom; and health information privacy laws, and to file a complaint with OCR, please visit:

Follow OCR on Twitter at @HHSOCR.

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