Under a settlement agreement reached with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), deaf patients at the Fort Washington Medical Center, Prince George’s County, Md., will be screened and provided with sign language interpreters whenever interpreter services are necessary for effective communication, says a statement released by HHS.

The settlement was negotiated following an investigation by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in response to a complaint from a deaf patient. The man entered the emergency room late one evening accompanied by his 11-year-old son. Although the man and his son requested an interpreter, none was provided, and the medical staff relied on the son to interpret for his father in the emergency room, says the statement.

Federal laws prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, and require entities such as hospitals to provide effective communication for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. OCR found that Fort Washington Medical Center violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when it failed to provide the deaf patient with an interpreter during his emergency room visit.

OCR Director Georgina Verdugo said in the statement that hospitals have a legal obligation to ensure that qualified interpreters are available when needed for effective communication with deaf or hard of hearing persons, rather than relying on family members. This agreement helps the Fort Washington Medical Center fulfill this legal obligation by providing deaf or hard-of-hearing persons with appropriate language assistance to ensure effective communication, she added.

E. Elaine Gardner, director, Disability Rights Project, Washington Lawyers’ Committee, who filed the complaint on behalf of the deaf patient, said in the statement that the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs applauds the settlement agreement, which will help ensure that hearing children of deaf parents are not required to act as interpreters for their parents in health care and other serious situations. This practice harms both the deaf parent and the child, and does not ensure effective communication for the deaf person in these critical moments, she added. 

Verna S. Meacham, Fort Washington Medical Center’s president and CEO said in the statement that the facility recognizes the importance of accurate communication with patients, and embraces the new procedures that are being implemented. Click here to view a copy of the OCR letter of finding and the settlement agreement. 

OCR is partnering with the American Hospital Association and state hospital associations across the nation to raise awareness about requirements of the federal law. Click here to view more information about the Effective Communication in Hospitals Initiative.

[Source: HHS]