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Department of Justice Announces Nationwide
Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative

August 10, 2012
Health Care Alert

Recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that its Civil Rights Division will be teaming up with U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country through a new Barrier-Free Health Initiative. The Initiative will target enforcement efforts to make sure that people with disabilities, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing, have access to medical information. This Initiative is a multi-phase plan that also will address other issues for people with disabilities, including physical access to medical buildings. Referring to recent large-scale settlement agreements regarding these issues, Barbara McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, is quoted in the DOJ’s announcement as follows: “These settlements ensure that deaf and hard of hearing patients can communicate with their doctors and obtain equal access to medical treatment, especially at critical moments in their care.” The announcement can be accessed here.

All health care providers should review their current practices, policies and procedures with respect to persons with disabilities, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing. To assist providers in their compliance efforts, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has published resources for health care providers. For example, a copy of OCR’s sample policy and procedure for providing auxiliary aids and services for persons with disabilities can be accessed here. Notably, among other things, the sample policy provides that all necessary auxiliary aids and services shall be provided without cost to the patient. It also provides useful guidance on the extent to which a patient’s family member or friend can be used as an interpreter.

Providers also should confirm that their practices and policies comply with state law and accreditation standards. For example, Michigan’s Deaf Persons’ Interpreters Act provides that if an interpreter is required as an accommodation for a deaf or deaf-blind person under state law or federal law (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act), the interpreter must be a “qualified” interpreter. The Act defines “qualified” interpreter as a person certified through the national registry of interpreters for the deaf or certified through the state. Further, the Joint Commission’s Hospital Accreditation Standards require hospitals to respect a patient’s right to receive information in a manner he or she understands, although it is up to the hospital to determine which method is best for each patient. Optional methods include interpreters (hospital-employed or contracted), pen and paper, and communication boards.

For questions regarding when interpreters must be provided to patients, or assistance with drafting or reviewing policies relating to effective communication with persons with disabilities, please contact any member of the Honigman Health Care Practice Group.