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Lawsuit: UNC, Nash UNC health care systems discriminating against blind patients

The National Federation of the Blind, Disability Rights North Carolina and individual blind patients are suing UNC Health Care System and Nash UNC Health Care for systematic discrimination.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, alleges that blind patients do not receive critical communications in alternate formats — such as Braille, large print, or electronic documents — only standard print. This causes financial and personal hardships for blind patients and does not allow them to keep their medical information private.

The allegations are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“For instance, according to the lawsuit, plaintiff John Bone is a blind patient who visited Nash General Hospital for emergency medical care services on two separate occasions,” a news release states. “Each visit, he informed the hospital that he was blind and needed to receive all his medical bills in Braille. Mr. Bone instead received all the bills in print, and he did not know how much money he owed or even to whom he owed money until collection agencies pursued and threatened him. Mr. Bone seeks to receive medical bills in Braille, so he can pay his bills without accruing late fees, enduring harassment from creditors, and having his credit score needlessly damaged.”

Another plaintiff named in the lawsuit visits a UNC Health Care provider at least once every six months and needs documents formatted in large print in order to read them. During his medical visits, he is forced to sign forms he cannot read and receives visit summaries, follow-up medical instructions, and bills all in standard print, according to the lawsuit.

That patient often must share personal medical information with third parties to understand and follow medical instructions. He seeks to keep his medical information private, which he can do if he received documents in large print.

“Blind people need and deserve the same privacy and independence in managing our healthcare that sighted patients take for granted,” said Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind. “In some cases, the ability to receive information in formats we can use can make a life-or-death difference. With today’s technology, providing bills, medical records, and treatment instructions in alternative formats is readily achievable, and all providers have a moral and legal obligation to do so.”

Virginia Knowlton Marcus, Executive Director of Disability Rights NC, said they are representing blind individuals in North Carolina because the failure to communicate with them violates their rights and increases their chances of incurring fines and damaging their credit scores. She said it also disregards their need for independence and privacy, and puts their very health at risk.

“Health care providers have the responsibility to know and do better,” she added.

The plaintiffs are represented by the attorneys of Disability Rights NC and the Baltimore law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP.

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