In what’s being called a national precedent, yet another state is agreeing to change its approach to providing medical care during the pandemic in order to prevent disability discrimination.

The U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights said Thursday that it has reached a resolution with the state of Utah to revise its crisis standards of care guidelines.

At issue is the state’s plan to ration care in the event that ventilators or other resources are in short supply, an issue that’s come to the fore amid the coronavirus pandemic. Disability advocacy groups have filed complaints against nearly a dozen states alleging that such plans discriminate against people with disabilities.

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In the case of Utah, the state has altered its plan so that medical providers must conduct an individual assessment rather than making decisions based on age, disability or functional impairment. Language allowing a person’s long-term life expectancy to be factored has been removed and providers can no longer consider resource intensity or duration of need as criteria for a person to receive medical resources. In addition, under the updated policy, hospitals should not reallocate personal ventilators that people with disabilities have brought with them.

Most significantly, advocates noted that Utah will not allow blanket “do not resuscitate” policies if resources are scarce and the state is including protections to keep providers from steering people into decisions to withhold life-sustaining treatment.

“We’ve been pleased by the cooperation of states we have approached with civil rights concerns regarding their policies and Utah’s plan is the best yet,” said Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights. “Older persons and persons with disabilities have equal worth and dignity and should not be deprioritized for health care based on stereotypes and other impermissible factors.”

The HHS Office for Civil Rights previously resolved complaints against Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Alabama regarding crisis standards of care guidelines.

“Today’s resolution sends a clear message during a dire time: people with disabilities must have equal access to life-saving treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Alison Barkoff, director of advocacy at the Center for Public Representation, one of the groups that brought the complaints against Utah and other states. “Many states’ medical rationing plans have discriminatory provisions similar to those in Utah. We urge states across the country to heed this warning and revise their plans now to comply with federal disability laws.”

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