The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued a new guidance for healthcare providers to help prevent telehealth discrimination. The new guidance marks the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, where the US government seeks to address several federal nondiscrimination laws such as the ADA Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act along with several steps healthcare providers can take to prohibit discrimination and protect access to health care.
The new guidance comes after the widespread implementation of telehealth services in the healthcare sector. While telehealth can be an important resource, discrimination does still occur and creates challenges to care. For instance, in elderly, racial minority, and rural populations, telehealth use is much lower than other populations. The result is further disparities in access to virtual care.
We have seen important expansions in health care technologies, such as telehealth, that provide great convenience and help for people seeking care. This guidance makes clear that there is a legal obligation to ensure that all people receive full access to needed health care and can connect to telehealth services, free of discriminatory barriers,” said HHS’s Office for Civil Rights’ Director Melanie Fiontes Rainer. “While we celebrate the progress of the ADA, we know how important it remains to uphold the rights of people with disabilities and other protected individuals to make our country accessible and inclusive for all.
The guidelines are designed to guarantee that individuals with disabilities, such as those who are blind, deaf, or do not speak English fluently, receive equal treatment. Deaf individuals could find it difficult to communicate with an interpreter through telehealth, while blind people looking for telehealth solutions might discover that the medium does not include screen reader software. In addition, those who do not speak English well could find it difficult to find and arrange an appointment.
Recommendations for healthcare providers include making reasonable modifications for people with disabilities such as scheduling a longer appointment for individuals who may need it to communicate due to their disability. Other modifications examples include implementing sign language interpretation and language assistance services.
The HHS and DOJ has requested individuals to file complaints if they experience discrimination through telehealth. “It is critical to ensure that telehealth care is accessible to all, including patients with disabilities, those with limited English proficiency, and people of all races and national origins,”commented Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Federal civil rights laws protect patients from discrimination whether they receive health care online or at the doctor’s office. The Department of Justice will vigorously enforce the ADA and other civil rights laws to ensure that health care providers offering telehealth services are doing so free from discrimination.”