Saturday, October 30, 2010

Federal prosecutors announce three NH hospitals will improve ADA access, deaf services

From The Nashua Telegraph in N.H.:

Three New Hampshire hospitals, including two in Nashua, have agreed in the last three months that they would improve interpretation services after being accused of failing to communicate properly with deaf people.

The agreements were reached with the U.S. attorney’s office, which landed a similar settlement with a fourth hospital two years ago.

On Oct. 29, federal prosecutors announced the town of Wolfeboro would improve several of its facilities after a complaint that they weren’t accessible to people with disabilities.

The timing of the settlements may suggest the makings of a trend, but Assistant U.S. Attorney John Farley said it’s a coincidence.

“The investigations have been going on a long time,” Farley said. “Some of them happened to wrap up in close proximity of one another.

“We can’t orchestrate them. It takes time to investigate.”

The string of announcements also doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. attorney’s office has only recently pursued possible American Disability Act violations, he said. The office takes the matter seriously, and has reached other settlements in the past that probably didn’t receive as much media attention, he said.

“We’ve always considered ADA matters important,” Farley said. “When they regard getting access to health care, they are especially important. It can mean the difference between getting the right care and the wrong care.”

The complaints were unrelated, Farley said, but carried the same charge: People were denied service or medical treatment because their disabilities weren’t considered.

A concerned resident filed the complaint against the town of Wolfeboro, the U.S. attorney’s office said. On Friday, the town agreed to make a number of changes to improve parking areas, sidewalks, restrooms and other features at town facilities so they’ll be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

On Monday, Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester agreed it would better determine the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and then provide them with appropriate auxiliary aids and services, including American Sign Language interpreters.

The two complainants will also receive a $35,000 settlement from the hospital. The couple had alleged they were denied proper medical treatment because they couldn’t fully communicate with hospital staff.

Last month, St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua reached a similar agreement with the federal government, as did the city’s other hospital, Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, in July.

St. Joseph also erased the $10,000 medical bill of two deaf people and their children after they had alleged the hospital and its medical practice umbrella, St. Joseph Physician Services, gave inadequate medical treatment because they didn’t provide ASL interpreters.

SNHMC agreed to pay a hearing-impaired patient $5,000 following a similar allegation.

Both Nashua hospitals agreed they would implement a program to ensure effective communication for deaf and hard-of-hearing patients, including access to ASL interpreters.

Concord Hospital entered the same agreement in 2008. None of the four hospitals admitted liability.

Farley said the U.S. attorney’s office is working with other hospitals on similar allegations, but declined to say how many.

“This is not to just enforce the law, but to also educate about the importance of the ADA,” Farley said.

And who settles is less important than how they follow and don’t follow the ADA, he said.

“Say you have got a deaf parent with a 10-year-old child who can hear fine,” Farley said. “Sometimes, the thinking on the part of these folks in the doctor’s office is that, ‘Well, your daughter can interpret for you.’

“But do you want your daughter breaking news that you’ve got cancer, and breaking complicated news, at that? If you have a hearing barrier, it’s a challenge to take it all in.”