A Missouri man who is blind and deaf says that a medical bill he was unaware of was sent to collections. This led to an 11% increase in his home insurance premiums. In a separate instance from California, an insurer has canceled a blind woman’s coverage every year since 2010, she says, after sending printed “verification of benefits” documents to her home that she cannot read. The issues persisted even after she hired a lawyer.
According to a KHN investigation, health insurance and healthcare systems across the United States are violating disability rights laws by sending inaccessible medical bills and notices. The approach makes it difficult for blind and visually impaired Americans to understand what they owe, thus effectively imposing a disability tax on their time and money.
The National Federation of the Blind estimates that more than 7 million Americans aged 16 and older have a visual impairment. Having medical information and bills delivered in an accessible manner is a right guaranteed by various statutes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Affordable Care Act, and the Rehabilitation Act, according to disability rights legal experts.
Some people reported that their medical bills are impossible to read. They often contain coding which is incompatible with screen readers. Braille documents are not sent in the mail. Patients can’t fill out forms if they are unable to read them.
For disabled people, there are numerous barriers when it comes to healthcare. As someone with Cerebral Palsy, sometimes medical professionals make assumptions about my cognitive ability. Although I can communicate, healthcare providers do not always talk to me.
In 2020, a physical therapist rarely spoke directly to me. She would direct questions and concerns about my care to my PCA. This was frustrating because I was her patient. My PCA attends my medical appointments to assist me with my physical needs, such as transfers and toileting. He is not there to speak on my behalf. He doesn’t need to answer questions about me. I am capable of having a conversation about my medical care.
Many people use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Be patient and pay attention to what someone says, no matter how it is expressed. Disabled people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in healthcare settings.
Stuart Salvador, 37, was left with limited vision and hearing following a case of shingles at 28. The illness is caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox. Annually, an estimated 1 million cases are reported in the United States, with an individual lifetime risk of 30%. Patients with immune deficiencies are 20 to 100 times more likely to contract shingles. Before the rash develops, patients may experience malaise, headache, low-grade fever, and strange skin sensations for two to three days.
Salvador estimates that converting a printed medical bill into braille can take up to six hours. He said CoxHealth and Mercy hospital systems sent him to collections many times. This occurred because healthcare providers sent him bills he couldn’t read. As a result, he says, his house insurance company increased his annual premium by 11%, costing him an additional $133.51 and causing him extra stress.
Access to health care is essential for those with disabilities. However, if we can’t advocate for ourselves and understand critical information, our needs will not be met. Information presented in an accessible format allows people to better understand their healthcare needs. We deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Having a disability doesn’t make us less worthy.
Saguil, Aaron et al. “Herpes Zoster and Postherpetic Neuralgia: Prevention and Management.” American family physician vol. 96,10 (2017): 656-663.
Weber, Lauren, and Hannah Recht. “Medical Bills Remain Inaccessible for Many Visually Impaired Americans.” NPR, NPR, 1 Dec. 2022, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/12/01/1139730806/blind-disability-accessibility-medical-bills.