Advocacy groups announce partial settlement in lawsuit over hospital discrimination against blind patients

Nash Hospitals, Inc. agrees to pay $150,000, plus attorney fees; suit continues against UNC Health Care

Two years ago, the National Federation of the Blind, Disability Rights North Carolina and individual blind patients sued UNC Health Care System and Nash Hospitals, Inc. (which does business as “Nash UNC Health Care”) for systematic discrimination.

The lawsuit, which was brought under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, alleged that blind patients did not receive critical communications in alternate formats — such as Braille, large print, or electronic documents — but only in standard print. This failure caused financial and personal hardships for blind patients and prevented them from keeping their medical information private.

Today, the advocacy groups announced that a settlement had been reached with one of the defendants in the case. This is from a news release distributed this morning:

“Nash Hospitals, Inc. will pay $150,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees to settle legal claims by a blind Rocky Mount, NC man whom Nash General Hospital refused to provide written materials in Braille. The National Federation of the Blind, America’s civil rights organization of the blind, and Disability Rights North Carolina also agreed to not pursue further litigation against Nash Hospitals, Inc. for its past failures to provide written materials in formats accessible to the blind.

John Bone received emergency medical care at Nash General Hospital. Mr. Bone’s claims stemmed from his inability to read bills and other communications from Nash relating to his medical care because they were not provided to him in Braille, either at all or on a timely basis, resulting in collection agencies pursuing him for debts that he was unaware he owed. Importantly, these debts are also being forgiven as part of the settlement.”

The announcement went on to say that while Nash Hospitals, Inc. is no longer part of the lawsuit, the litigation against UNC Health Care System, will continue:

“Timothy Miles, Mr. Bone, the National Federation of the Blind, and Disability Rights NC allege that UNC Health Care System systematically discriminates against blind people by failing to provide them written information in formats they can access, such as large print, Braille, and accessible electronic formats, that enable them to participate in their care and make timely payments on their medical bills.”

National Federation for the Blind President Mark Riccobono

According to Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, it ought not to be that difficult for UNC to accommodate blind patients. “With today’s technology, providing bills, medical records, and treatment instructions in alternative formats, such as Braille and large print, is readily achievable,” he said. “We are happy to work with healthcare entities who want guidance in providing medical information in accessible formats.”

Disability Rights NC executive director Virginia Knowlton Marcus said she hoped the settlement would send a message to health care providers. “Sighted people count on receiving printed bills from their healthcare providers, reviewing the charges, and negotiating with medical providers and the insurance company if they believe they were charged incorrectly,” she said. “Blind patients like Mr. Bone should not have to wrangle for their right to billing information in a format they can access, or live in fear of building up late fees and damaging their credit due to bills that are impossible for them to read.”

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