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People With Disabilities Face Threat Of Medical Bias, Health Care Rationing During COVID-19 Outbreak

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Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels CC0: https://bit.ly/2VRvJaC

This post was updated on Tuesday, July 7, at 3:45 p.m.

One in four adults in the U.S. is living with a disability. That's 61 million Americans for whom everyday obstacles are exacerbated due to the outbreak, as COVID-19 shines a light on existing issues and poses new pandemic-related threats for people with disabilities.

Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Health Policy Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, said generally, there are crisis standards of care that have been put together prior to a crisis to maintain consistency between treatment of patients.

“What we are finding, though now in the COVID crisis, is that now that these crisis standards of care are being unpacked a little bit is that they do sometimes include biasing statements about disability,” Iezzoni said.

Advocates in Texas are especially concerned by the lack of protections against medical care rationing and bias that could lead to the denial of treatment for people with disabilities, who may be considered high risk for severe illness and complications from COVID-19 infection because of an underlying medical condition.

According to Sean Jackson, supervising attorney for Disability Rights Texas, triage committees — which are intended to provide ethical oversight — might not eliminate all bias.

“We also are still talking about human beings that are doing these jobs and human beings that are bringing their own attitudes and biases and predispositions about certain individuals. And I think that the concern is that it gets conflated with making a sound medical decision with some predisposed notion that this person's value, their quality of life is not worth (us) expending resources on them,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, "adults with disabilities are three times more likely than adults without disabilities to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities."

How has the outbreak impacted the lives of those who rely on caregivers or lack independence due to a disability? How will COVID-19 affect home care and education of children with disabilities? 

Will Texas leadership issue guidelines to prevent disability-related health care rationing and bias? What other public policies are problematic for individuals living with disabilities during a pandemic? What can be done to improve the status quo?

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*This interview was recorded on Tuesday, June 7.

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Kathleen Creedon can be reached at kathleen@tpr.org or on Twitter at @Kath_Creedon
Kim Johnson is the producer for Texas Public Radio’s live, call-in show The Source. She is a Trinity University alum with bachelor’s degrees in Communication and Spanish, and a Master of Arts Degree from the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.