Old Age and Preexisting Conditions: Could hospitals violate your civil rights during Covid-19 crisis?

As the global emergency expands and moves closer to home, hospitals in nearby Boston and New York have become crowded, creating a need to build makeshift facilities and request more supplies as protective equipment and ventilators become scarce.  Along with the supply chain depletion and overcrowding, as we have seen in the news from around the world, hospitals may be forced to choose who to treat first. This potentially would mean to ration care by treating the young and healthy first, leaving those with preexisting conditions, and increased age at a serious disadvantage on the path to recovery.

This discriminatory choice could potentially cause severe complications or the unfortunate death of those deemed too old or sick. Disability rights groups across the US have argued that this is in violation of patients’ constitutional rights citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and  section 504:The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which forbids publicly funded organizations to discriminate solely by reason of a person’s disability.

According to 42 U.S.C. Chapter 126, a disability is defined when someone is regarded as having, or recorded as having a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities. The major life activities of topic with regards to health care include:

…“major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”

…“a major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. See: https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title42/chapter126&edition=prelim: Chapter 126: Opportunity For Individuals with Disabilities

These conditions must be ongoing and last longer than 6 months in order to be considered a disability. 

The infringement on patients rights under the ADA, could mean life or death for someone in critical care. An elderly patient who has been fighting this virus for longer could be set aside for someone younger and healthier when the equipment comes into supply, while a medical team holds this choice.  Knowing this practice has taken place in other places in the world, and now in our country in the coming weeks if not already, can leave those with common conditions such as asthma and heart disease, as well as Vermont’s aging population in fear for their ability to receive life saving care. This could potentially prevent those with preexisting conditions from seeking the testing and medical care needed early enough to save their life.  

Will these choices lead to a higher number of deaths as a result of complications from COVID-19?  Certainly one could argue that those with preexisting conditions may need the help the most, especially considering that this virus, according to new reports, seems to attack the old and weak the worst. Reserving acute care, and life saving equipment for the young and healthy seems counterintuitive, not to mention that human beings have a right to non-discriminatory care.  

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