Hospital Settlement Reached

In a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Abbott Northwestern Hospital has agreed to improve its interpreter services […]

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In a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Abbott Northwestern Hospital has agreed to improve its interpreter services program for its patients who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. The settlement includes a payment of $20,000 to a deaf woman who had filed a charge of discrimination, alleging that the hospital failed to provide properly trained interpreters.

“We are pleased that we have been able to work with Abbott Northwestern to reach an agreement that addresses what we believe is a significant problem for deaf and hard-of-hearing patients in hospitals throughout the state,” said Commissioner of Human Rights Velma Korbel. “When a hospital fails to provide a qualified interpreter, a deaf or hard-of-hearing person may have to make critical health decisions without being able to adequately communicate with his or her doctor. This communication gap could place some deaf or hard-of-hearing patients at risk.”

Korbel praised Abbott Northwestern’s cooperation during the investigation and the settlement process, which has resulted in an agreement that the Department of Human Rights believes should be a model for other Minnesota hospitals and health care providers.

The charge that led to the settlement was filed against Abbott Northwestern in 2001 by Lee Perish, a deaf Minneapolis woman. Perish alleged that she had arrived at the hospital emergency room on the afternoon of November 17, 2001 with breathing problems and severe abdominal pain. The hospital called for an interpreter employed by a referral service, but the interpreter did not arrive promptly and was not adequately trained to provide services in a medical setting, according to Perish. The interpreter left, and Perish waited for several hours in the hospital’s ER without an interpreter.

“The doctor kept insisting that surgery was going to be necessary, and that it should be done that evening,” Perish said in the charge she filed. “I tried to explain that I was a very high risk person for surgery… we had difficulty communicating.” She also alleged that she did not have an interpreter at an Abbott Northwestern appointment a few days later when several medical tests were conducted, and that she may have been subjected to unnecessary tests as a result.

In its investigation, the Department of Human Rights found that there is probable cause to believe that Abbott Northwestern, a part of Allina Hospitals & Clinics, violated the state Human Rights Act by failing to reasonably accommodate Perish’s disability when it provided interpreters who were lacking in adequate certification levels.

Expert witnesses indicated that to facilitate effective communication in a medical setting, a sign language interpreter should have obtained certification by the NAD (National Association of the Deaf) at level 4 or 5, or an alternative, “parallel” certification available from the RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf). The interpreter assigned to Perish lacked such certification, and there was credible evidence that the interpreter had difficulty facilitating communication for her. In addition, the Department noted that Abbott Northwestern had no written policy that addressed certification standards for sign language interpreters.

“We sincerely regret Ms. Perish’s experience, but her situation highlighted gaps in our service provision for deaf and hard-of-hearing patients and has helped us to make our service better,” said Maria Hitateguy, manager of Allina Interpreter Services. “We are committed to providing the best service to deaf and hard-of-hearing patients and feel that overall we had been delivering a high level service, but we have made improvements in timeliness of response, increased internal staffing and improved agency contracting requirements.”

In the settlement negotiated with the Department of Human Rights, Abbott Northwestern acknowledges no wrongdoing but agrees to a wide range of provisions designed to ensure adequate services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. As part of the agreement, Abbott Northwestern will:

Provide qualified (by NAD or RID, see above) sign language interpreters to deaf or hard-of-hearing patients and their companions;
Employ at least one qualified staff interpreter working during regular business hours;
Employ at least three qualified on-call interpreters who will be paid to carry pagers and to respond to requests for interpreters outside of regular business hours;
Maintain a response time of one hour or less in at least 80 percent of nonscheduled interpreter requests, and two hours or less in 100 percent of such requests;
Provide training for hospital personnel in policies for providing effective communication with deaf and hard-of-hearing persons; and
Make all information concerning patients’ rights available in formats that will communicate the information to deaf and hard-of-hearing persons.
The hospital has agreed to file reports with the Department of Human Rights at intervals of 6, 12, 18 and 24 months, detailing the number or frequency of interpreter requests, the times an interpreter was provided or denied and the time it took in each case to provide the interpreter.

In addition to the $20,000 the hospital will pay to Perish, Abbott Northwestern also will pay:

$2,500 to the Disability Law Center, which represented Perish during the negotiations;
$500 to VSA arts of Minnesota to provide interpreter services;
$1,000 to the Guthrie Theatre to provide interpreter services; and
$1,000 to the Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf to provide a medical interpreting workshop.
“I hope that the settlement agreement will mean that other deaf people who go to Abbott Northwestern Hospital will not experience the fear and anxiety that I experienced when there was no qualified interpreter in the emergency room,” Perish said. “And I hope that other hospitals will adopt similar policies for their emergency rooms and all other patient care areas.”

“Hospitals, like all other public accommodations, are required by the state Human Rights Act to make reasonable accommodations for persons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing,” said Commissioner Korbel. “The Department of Human Rights is eager to provide information and other assistance to medical providers, who need help understanding sign language interpreter issues, to meet their responsibilities under the law. We are also prepared to act when providers fail to meet those responsibilities.”

For more information, contact Jeff Holman, Minnesota Department of Human Rights, 651-296-2173, [email protected].

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