Coronavirus and Inequality

Published — May 5, 2020

New bill attempts to ensure people with disabilities get equal ventilator access

A respiratory specialist operates a ventilator for a patient with COVID-19 who went into cardiac arrest and was revived by staff April 20, 2020 at St. Joseph's Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Following Center for Public Integrity investigation, Sen. Ben Sasse writes bill aimed at preventing disability discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic


U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has drafted legislation meant to ensure states do not discriminate against people with disabilities when deciding which patients get ventilators if supplies run short during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The senator’s announcement of the bill Tuesday cited a Center for Public Integrity investigation showing that as of early April, half of states had emergency policies to ration care in ways that disability advocates had denounced.

“A just society is measured by how we treat the most vulnerable, and now is the time for Congress to step up,” Sasse told Public Integrity in an emailed statement. “Americans with disabilities shouldn’t be pushed to the back of the line.”

The proposed bill, which Sasse is attempting to include in Congress’s “Phase Four” legislation to address the coronavirus crisis, would block a state from receiving resources, including ventilators, from the Strategic National Stockpile, if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined the state had a resource policy discriminating against people with disabilities.

HHS did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.

The agency’s Office of Civil Rights previously issued a bulletin warning states that their policies on rationing ventilators must comply with federal anti-discrimination law. The agency pressed Alabama to remove a policy from its website stating people with “severe mental retardation” would be “poor candidates” for scarce ventilators. 

A group of Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, wrote to HHS last month asking that the Trump administration ensure states don’t discriminate based on disability or age when it comes to treating patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Warren and Casey did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a press release, Sasse’s office said the senator “has been in talks with his colleagues and will continue to improve the legislation for inclusion in any Phase Four legislation.”

A spokesperson for a disability rights group that has filed complaints with the federal government over state rationing policies said she is pleased the issue is getting more attention.

“We are grateful for the recognition by a legislator that no treatment for COVID-19 should be withheld or limited by a person’s disability,” said Nicole Jorwic, senior director of public policy for The Arc. “We’re very grateful to see this is showing up as an issue that matters to both Republicans and Democrats in the face of a pandemic because disability is a nonpartisan issue.”

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