In a resolution that applies to all MedStar Health Inc.
(“MedStar Health”) care locations in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia,
MedStar Health has agreed to end its discriminatory treatment of patients with
disabilities, including William King, a 73-year old man with communication-related
disabilities, and to modify its policies to ensure patients with disabilities
can access the in-person supports needed to communicate and have equal access
to medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to a federal disability discrimination complaint filed on September 16, 2020, by Disability Rights DC at University Legal Services (DRDC) together with CommunicationFIRST, the Center for Public Representation, The Arc of the United States, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reached an agreement with MedStar Health to revise its no-visitor policies at all MedStar Health care locations to make clear that patients with disabilities who require support persons to communicate or otherwise access the programs and services of MedStar Health are entitled to access those in-person supports with appropriate coronavirus safety mitigation measures.

The District
lacks clear, mandatory District-level guidance and policy to prevent
discrimination against patients with disabilities. Instead, it has allowed
health care entities like MedStar Health to set their own policies regarding
in-person supports and other communication-related accommodations during the
pandemic and gives these entities significant discretion to implement its
policies. OCR’s resolution serves as a model for District-wide adoption. 

MedStar also
committed, in a separate resolution with Mr. King, to allow his support persons
to accompany and stay with Mr. King at any MedStar Health care locations to
ensure access to effective communication in his treatment consistent with
MedStar Health’s revised policy.

The complaint alleged that MedStar Health discriminated against Mr. King in its implementation of its no-visitor policy by refusing to allow Mr. King’s support person to accompany him during his stay in the MedStar Washington Hospital Center and the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital and failing to provide technical auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication, in violation of federal law and subjecting Mr. King to serious risk of inadequate medical care, unnecessary physical and chemical restraints, and lasting emotional harm. With OCR’s leadership, the parties engaged in an Early Complaint Resolution process resulting in the agreement.

The new MedStar Health policy in part:

  • Requires all MedStar Health care locations in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland to allow patients with disabilities to designate support persons to support them throughout their stay or visit at MedStar Health
  • Recognizes that support persons may need to assist the patient with a disability regarding:
    • Needs that are not visually apparent to someone who does not know them (e.g., discomfort, hunger, thirst, pain)
    • Changes in their symptoms
    • Needs related to a history of trauma
    • Emotional self-regulation and anxiety management to prevent unnecessary use of physical and chemical restraints
  • Acknowledges that MedStar Health has a continuing obligation during the pandemic to provide necessary aids and services and ensure effective communication and equal access to healthcare for patients with and without a support person.

“I am relieved
that this is over and hope that MedStar will allow supporters for all people
with disabilities that need them now that the policy has changed,” said Mr.
King. “I filed this case because I wanted to help other people with
disabilities so that no one has to go through what I went through. We are very
thankful to everyone involved and to the hospital staff that helped me

“Our family
was heartbroken that my father thought we left him in the hospital to die,”
said Valerie Turnquist. “There are no words to express our deepest gratitude to
Lyndsay Niles at DRDC, the other organizations who supported the case, and the
Office for Civil Rights for expeditiously mediating a resolution. If your loved
one has a disability, please ensure they have an advocate and do not ever stop

“Even in our nation’s
capital and surrounding areas, 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

“We are incredibly pleased
with the outcome and grateful that OCR moved quickly to ensure that MedStar
Health adheres to the communication and health care rights of Mr. King and
other people with disabilities who seek equitable treatment in their health
care,” said DRDC Managing Attorney Lyndsay Niles. “COVID-19 has not created but
exacerbated the need for disability justice to end discrimination for people
with disabilities in health care and other spaces. This resolution is an
important step to help prevent the injustice and harm Mr. King was subjected to
from happening to other patients with disabilities in the future.”

“Demonstrating leadership
once again, OCR in this second resolution on discriminatory hospital visitation
policies during COVID, has made clear that health care providers must follow
the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws to ensure patients
with disabilities can access the in-person supports they may need,” said Tauna
Szymanski, Executive Director of CommunicationFIRST. “This resolution makes
clear that patients with disabilities have the right to support people even in
states like Virginia and the District of Columbia that have not yet adopted a
comprehensive statewide policy clarifying these rights.”

Many of these advocates
have been involved in filing a number of complaints with the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights challenging
medical discrimination by states and hospitals, including discriminatory crisis
standard of care plans, no-visitor policies, and inaccessible COVID-19 testing
sites as well as a recently released report: “Examining How Crisis Standards of Care May Lead to
Intersectional Medical Discrimination Against COVID-19 Patients

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