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Getting quality medical care is tough, but it’s even tougher when you can’t access critical information on your provider or insurance company’s website. Unfortunately, that’s the case for many patients with disabilities.

Under Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, healthcare organizations are required to make their information and communications technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. This includes websites, web applications, software, and hardware. In addition, many healthcare organizations must also comply with non-discrimination rules under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Barriers to Medical Care Faced by Patients with Disabilities

Patients with disabilities and the aging population face a number of significant barriers that prevent them from accessing medical care.

Here are just a few examples:

  • A patient who is blind can’t search their insurance company’s website for in-network providers because the website isn’t compatible with screen reader software
  • The website for a hospital includes helpful videos on what to expect before major procedures, but there is no captioning or transcript for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • A patient who wears a medical device to track her heart condition can’t read the display because it’s too small.
  • An urgent care center uses a kiosk to check patients in, but the screen can’t be zoomed in for patients who are low vision. Instead, they have to say their personal information out loud for someone else to enter on the kiosk for them.
  • The third-party medical records app used by a provider doesn’t have a high contrast mode, making it hard for patients to read test results.
  • An appointments website requires the use of a mouse and cannot be used by patients who use a keyboard because of visual or mobility disabilities.

Accessibility barriers such as these can prevent the 40 million Americans with disabilities from accessing medical care and limit the ability of healthcare providers to properly diagnose and treat their patients.

The Law Requires Healthcare Organizations to Make Their Digital Resources Accessible

Federal law requires healthcare organizations that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other federal agencies to make ICT accessible to individuals with disabilities. This includes not only healthcare providers, but also insurance companies offering plans through Medicare, Medicaid, or the ACA Marketplaces.

Regulations implementing the ACA, for instance, require covered entities to make resources accessible unless doing so would result in undue financial and administrative burdens or a fundamental alteration of the nature of the health programs or activities. Demonstrating an undue burden can be quite difficult, especially where technology is readily available to make digital resources such as websites accessible.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which manage the federal Medicare and state Medicaid health insurance program, also require contractors, including insurance carriers offering Medicare and Medicaid plans, to comply with the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Since its 2018 refresh, Section 508 has required government websites to meet the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA standards, which is the broadly-used industry standard for digital accessibility.

In addition, healthcare organizations receiving funding from the federal government—including reimbursement for services delivered under Medicare, Medicaid, or ACA Marketplace insurance—are also subject to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits excluding individuals with disabilities from participation in or being denied the benefits of, or being subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal funding. Although Section 504 does not lay out a specific means of compliance—organizations instead have some discretion in deciding how to make their resources accessible—in most cases the easiest way to make their digital resources accessible is to make them compatible with WCAG 2.1.

Furthermore, all medical providers, regardless of whether they receive funding from the federal government, are covered under Title III of the ADA, which prohibits places of public accommodation—including healthcare providers—from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Digital accessibility lawsuits under the ADA have increased dramatically in the past several years, with more than 2,200 suits filed in 2018, including many against hospitals and healthcare providers. As with complying with Section 504, the best way to avoid an ADA suit is to make your organization’s digital resources WCAG-compliant.

Finally, many of the healthcare organizations covered by these and other laws have made efforts to increase their own compliance by building digital accessibility into their procurement process. Even if accessibility laws don’t apply to your organization directly, you’ll still likely need to make your digital resources accessible if you want to be a vendor or provide services for an agency or organization that is covered. Here are some examples of what this looks like: 

  • Healthcare corporations will not partner with you if you can’t prove you are compliant with WCAG 2.0
  • Partners and subsidiaries oh healthcare corporations will not work with you if you cannot prove you are compliant
  • Customers of large healthcare corporations could ask you the same question

Key Takeaways

The 40 million Americans with disabilities face a number of significant barriers to receiving effective medical care, many of which also make it substantially more difficult—if not impossible—for healthcare providers to properly diagnose and treat their patients. Laws like the ACA, the ADA, and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act require healthcare organizations to make their digital resources accessible, and organizations that don’t do so often face costly legal actions. This is the future trend of digital accessibility in the healthcare space. The sooner a company becomes digitally accessible the more opportunities they will have for further business growth and larger market footprint.

Are you concerned that your websites and other digital resources aren’t accessible? Contact Level Access today for a complimentary Risk Assessment that will let you know how they are— and, more importantly, aren’t—accessible to patients with disabilities, as well as work with you to determine proper next steps.