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Civil Rights Group Urges Gov. Kate Brown Not to Allow Discrimination Against COVID-19 Patients With Disabilities

Disability Rights Oregon points to a Washington plan to ration health care if the novel coronavirus overwhelms the hospital system.

Disability Rights Oregon, the federally funded civil rights group, put Gov. Kate Brown on notice this week that Oregon hospitals and doctors may not discriminate against disabled Oregonians should the demand for treatment of COVID-19 overwhelm system capacity.

"In the coming days and weeks, health care providers in Oregon, and across the country, may be forced to make extraordinarily difficult decisions about who receives health care resources," DRO executive director Jake Cornett wrote to Brown on March 24.

"We know that public health officials have planned for this possibility. As preparation to implement this plan unfolds, we must work together to ensure the plan and implementation of this plan do not inadvertently discriminate against people with disabilities in violation of federal and state disability rights laws."

Cornett did not just imagine such discrimination as a hypothetical.

In China and Italy, according to media reports, patients with COVID-19 exceeded hospital capacity.

Cornett's letter to Brown followed a March 23 federal complaint filed in Washington state after public health and hospital officials there reportedly began planning how to ration health care for patients infected with the novel coronavirus.

The Seattle Times reported that state and private health officials discussed a preliminary plan that "will assess factors such as age, health and likelihood of survival in determining who will get access to full care and who will merely be provided comfort care, with the expectation that they will die."

"Make no mistake, it will not be pretty," Dr. Vicki Sakata, senior medical adviser to the Northwest Health Care Response Network, told the Times.

That planning in Washington was the basis for the federal civil rights complaint filed by DRO's sister organization Disability Rights Washington.

Washington state was the first COVID-19 hot spot in the U.S., and as of March 27, The New York Times' comprehensive national data base showed it has more than 10 times the number of cases Oregon has reported: 3,200 to 316.

But DRO doesn't want Oregon health officials to follow their Washington counterparts.

"We ask you to immediately issue clear directives that all trainings remind health care providers not to give priority to treating people who are younger and healthier and leave those who are older and have more health conditions—people with disabilities—to go without care or treatment," Cornett wrote to Brown.

Brown spokesman Charles Boyle tells WW in response to the DRO letter that there will be no discrimination against disabled Oregonians.

"Gov. Brown strongly believes that all Oregonians should have access to the health care they need, regardless of age or disability," Boyle said in a statement. "The Oregon Health Authority offers crisis care guidance, which clearly outlines that age and disability are not exclusion criteria for care. That has always been our expectation, and continues to be during the COVID-19 outbreak."