In May of 2021, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Senator James Lankford (R-OK) led a bicameral letter along with Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ), Katie Porter (D-CA), and their colleagues to Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra to push for action on the Department’s stalled Request for Information (RFI) regarding Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, “Discrimination on the Basis of Disability in Critical Health and Human Services Programs or Activities.” The members also called on the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to issue a proposed rule on the topics addressed in the RFI.
At the onset of the pandemic in March of 2020, Senator Gillibrand, alongside Senator Lankford, led a similar bipartisan, bicameral call on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to protect against disability discrimination in state and health provider responses to COVID-19. In the letter to former HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Attorney General William Barr, the bipartisan coalition called for HHS to notify states of their obligations to adhere to anti-discrimination laws — including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act — when reviewing and developing their “crisis standards of care.”
Last week, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra announced new guidance to health care providers to enhance protections for people with disabilities. The new guidance also clarifies that federal civil rights laws apply to individual state Crisis Standards of Care plans.
“Two years into the pandemic, we must remain vigilant for those who live with disabilities and are at greater risk for complications from COVID-19 infection,” said Senator Gillibrand. “When the pandemic first hit our nation, I knew the United States had a responsibility to uphold our landmark civil rights laws, and I am proud to have worked with Senator Lankford on this bipartisan effort to honor our commitment to anti-discrimination laws for people with disabilities. I am grateful to the Biden administration and Secretary Becerra for recognizing the importance of this issue and for fighting to protect against disability discrimination during this ongoing pandemic.”
In late 2019, the National Council on Disability (NCD) — an independent federal agency specializing in policy matters affecting the lives of people with disabilities — reported on prolific examples of disability bias and discrimination within medical decision-making, even in the absence of a crisis. In late 2021, NCD found that over 181,000 people with disabilities in long-term care facilities died from COVID-19 as of March 2021, making up approximately one-third of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths.
In addition to Gillibrand and Lankford, the 2020 letter pushing for disability protections in response to COVID-19 was signed by Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and led in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ-04) and Jim Langevin (D-RI-02). The letter was endorsed by nearly 30 leading disability and patient rights organizations. The request in this letter was recommended by the National Council on Disability (NCD).
In addition to Gillibrand and Lankford, the 2021 letter requesting a proposed rule and regulatory action from the Department of Health and Human Services regarding disability anti-discrimination was signed by Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Bob Casey (D-PA), Steve Daines (R-MT) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ-4), Katie Porter (D-CA-45), Jim Langevin (D-RI-2), Brad Wenstrup (R-OH-2), Lauren Underwood (D-IL-14), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-1), Ralph Norman (R-SC-5), Doug LaMalfa (R-CA-1), Robert Latta (R-OH-5), Andy Harris (R-MD-1), Russ Fulcher (R-ID-1), Brian Babin (R-TX-36), Vicky Hartzler (R-MO-4), and Don Young (R-AK At-large).
The full text of the letter can be found here.
More information on the HHS announcement can be found here.