A Section 1557 lawsuit is now pending in an Arizona federal court. Twelve (12) hearing-impaired individuals have brought suit alleging their health care provider discriminated against them by not providing sign language interpreters or electronic video interpretation. Instead of providing such accommodations, the lawsuit alleges, the health care staff relied on notes and lip reading in an attempt to communicate with the patients. The individuals assert that the provider should have trained the staff to recognize when interpretation is necessary, provided a functioning electronic video interpretation system, and instructed the staff on how to use electronic video interpretation.
The lawsuit underscores the requirements now imposed on health care providers under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act which became effective in July 2016. Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability in federal health care programs. When interacting with individuals with sensory, manual, or speaking disabilities, health care providers are required to provide communication that is as effective as the provider’s communication with non-impaired individuals. This requires that health care providers have access to sign language interpreters, Braille handouts, visual aids, auxiliary aids, or other communications formats when the need arises.
Section 1557 adopted the communication provisions that are described in Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which formerly only applied to state and local governments. These provisions allow the individual with the disability the freedom to choose the communication format he or she prefers. If the individual states a preference, the entity must honor the choice unless: (1) other equally effective communication formats are available, (2) the format would fundamentally alter the activity or program provided, or (3) the format imposes an undue financial and administrative burden.
It is imperative that health care providers familiarize themselves and comply with Section 1557’s requirements because nonconformity puts the health care provider at risk of both loss of federal funding and private lawsuits. As with all health care compliance concerns, providers need to review and assess their current policies and procedures to evaluate the need, if any, to update and modify according to Section 1557’s requirements. Additionally, staff need to be trained to recognize the accommodations Section 1557 requires, so that the health care provider can maintain its compliance under the ACA.