OHSU Sued By Disabled Patient Alleging Discrimination

OHSU Center for Health and Healing Building 2 South Waterfront Shutterstock July 25 2020.jpg

Oregon Health & Science University faces a federal disability discrimination lawsuit from a patient who alleges the hospital refused to allow her caregiver to help her during her stay.

Christine Getman, the plaintiff and patient, filed PDF iconthe lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Eugene. It stems from her 2020 stay at the Portland hospital and lays out an alleged pattern of repeated refusals of hospital staff to accommodate her. The lawsuit centers around OHSU’s alleged actions in how it enforced its COVID-19 no-visitor policy. 

Getman has spinal muscular atrophy, and she needs a ventilator, mobility device and support person for daily living. The condition is a rare neurological disorder that causes weakness in muscles. Getman’s lawsuit says she needs a tracheostomy tube to clean her airway and aid her breathing, a task that requires a caregiver and 24-hour support for other tasks such as eating and bathing. The caregiver also helps her turn over in bed.

OHSU allegedly prevented her from having her caregiver accompany her during a hospital stay, and didn’t provide the level of care Getman needed.

OHSU has not yet filed a response in court.

In a written statement, OHSU spokeswoman Tamara Hargens-Bradley said: “OHSU is a community of healers dedicated to providing compassionate, appropriate, high-quality care in a setting that is free from discrimination of any kind, including discrimination based on physical or mental disability. In light of patient privacy laws, OHSU will not comment on specific allegations outlined in the complaint.”

Getman went to OHSU’s emergency department on April 4, 2020, after she developed a headache and high fever, symptoms associated with her ongoing treatment that injects medication directly into her spinal canal and that had previously given her bacterial meningitis, the lawsuit says. By then, she and her caregiver had quarantined to stay safe and avoid catching COVID-19.

On first entering the hospital, her caregiver initially helped with transferring her from her wheelchair to a bed and other disability-related needs, including the suctioning of her tracheostomy tube, the lawsuit says.

Getman was then admitted to the hospital for treatment for bacterial meningitis. Hospital staff did not let her caregiver accompany her when Getman left the emergency department, even though she raised concerns, the lawsuit says.

“Plaintiff opposed being admitted to the hospital without consideration of an accommodation for her disability,” the lawsuit says. “She continually and repeatedly requested a policy modification that would allow her to be accompanied by her caregiver from any hospital staff that entered her room. She was informed that she would have to wait until morning when the issue could be reviewed by an administrative employee.”

When she got a COVID-19 test, Getman alleges she asked that her caregiver get one too, so he could stay with her and assist her, the lawsuit says. That request was allegedly denied.

Getman’s medical doctor told her that the hospital administration would not let the caregiver accompany and help her, the lawsuit says. The patient continued to request a modification to the no-visitor policy after her admission to the hospital and explained to physicians, nurses and medical staff that her needs were not met, the lawsuit says. One physician even responded by telling the patient that she really wanted the caregiver with her for “other reasons,” the lawsuit says.

Getman also requested an alternative one-on-one staff to help her, but didn’t get the help she needed, the lawsuit alleges. 

For example, one night her pillow slipped, leaving her in a painful and uncomfortable position for several hours, the lawsuit says. 

“Without her caregiver present to assist plaintiff with proper repositioning, plaintiff was left in uncomfortable positions for hours and was repositioned at most two times a day, instead of being repositioned every 15 minutes as is necessary for her to avoid severe joint pain,” the lawsuit said.

After 48 hours, she contacted her OHSU primary care provider to advocate on her behalf for caregiver assistance, the lawsuit says. However, the provider’s nurse declined to assist her, the lawsuit says.

In one instance, she had not yet been fed one day even though it was 11:30 a.m. The plaintiff also contacted an OHSU patient advocate, who forwarded her request to the hospital’s director of patient relations. That request, again, was denied, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges OHSU made exceptions to its no-visitor policy for other groups, such as patients with developmental conditions or dementia, patients in labor and children.

“Because OHSU easily made exceptions for others, accommodating (Getman) would not have posed an undue burden or expense on defendant, fundamentally altered defendant's services, or posed an undue threat or risk to plaintiff or others,” the lawsuit says.

She also missed meals and lacked proper tracheostomy care, which led to pain and irritation to her throat and made communication nearly impossible, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges the hospital illegally discriminated against the patient on the basis of her disability by failing to make reasonable modifications to its policies. The lawsuit alleges the defendant acted with “deliberate indifference” to the patient’s civil rights.

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial to determine her damages and attorney fees and an order that requires the hospital to make reasonable changes to its no-visitor policies. The lawsuit also wants the hospital to create a written accomodation plan to put in her medical records that allows her caregiver to be present at OHSU.

The lawsuit also wants the hospital to have a disability coordinator on site to address patient requests and training for hospital staff.

Oregon lawmakers addressed situations like Getman’s in the 2020 first special session, when they passed Senate Bill 1606. The law took effect in July 2020, after Getman’s stay at the hospital. That law requires hospitals to allow patients who need assistance with daily living tasks to designate at least three support people, including family members and caregivers, to be present during hospital stays. The lawsuit alleges OHSU changed its no-visitor policy only after the state law was passed. Since state law can always change, the lawsuit seeks an order so OHSU will comply with federal law.

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.

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