SEATTLE — Groups representing people with disabilities on Monday challenged a plan that would guide hospitals in Washington State dealing with the coronavirus in the event that they do not have enough lifesaving resources for all the patients who need them.
The triage care plan could result in end-of-life decisions that disadvantage those with disabilities, said David Carlson, the director of advocacy at Disability Rights Washington. The group’s complaint calls for the federal government to quickly intervene to investigate, issue findings and make sure that doctors and hospitals do not discriminate against people with disabilities when making treatment decisions.
“Washington’s rationing scheme places the lives of disabled people at serious risk,” the advocacy groups wrote in the complaint to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights.
State officials and other health leaders around the country have developed triage strategies over the years to help guide hospitals during a crisis situation where they exceed capacity. Officials in Washington State have held discussions over the past week to prepare hospitals for the possibility they may have to put them into practice, fearing that a rush of coronavirus cases in the coming days could leave them with a shortage of crucial pieces of lifesaving equipment, such as ventilators.
The complaint in Washington State was the first to be filed, but advocates for people with disabilities said they expect to scrutinize similar triage plans around the country to see if they provide equal access to lifesaving care.
The federal government “has a very brief moment to intercede,” the complaint said. If it does not, it said, “there will be no way to undo the lethal outcome of the discriminatory plans that have been formulated without O.C.R.’s guidance.”
Washington State’s triage document includes a range of factors for hospitals to consider in deciding who gets complete care. Much of the effort focuses on prioritizing people who have a better chance of survival, and among the factors it calls for hospitals to consider are a patient’s “baseline functional status” and indications of declines in energy, physical ability and cognition.
Mr. Carlson said that wording concerned him, leaving it open to doctors to make quality-of-life judgments that would place people with disabilities at a disadvantage. He also noted that the document says doctors should consider underlying diseases that have a low likelihood of short-term survival in deciding whether those patients should receive scarce medical resources. That could affect people who have ailments such as cystic fibrosis, he said.
“We are in some urgent times,” Mr. Carlson said. “These are not the times to throw out our core principles of fairness and equality. We don’t want to look back on these times like we have on other times when we’ve had great fear.”
The state’s Department of Health did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the complaint.
State officials have expressed hope that the health system would be able to handle all the coronavirus patients expected to need aid. As Washington State became a center of the virus this month, officials were the first in the United States to implement some of the most sweeping social-distancing strategies to limit the spread of the virus, and health leaders have begun developing new extra hospital capacity, including at a field hospital on a soccer field north of Seattle.