The National Federation of the Blind and three individuals sued the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services in federal court February 10, calling on the agency to make its documentation, including key materials relating to benefit changes and denials, accessible to people with visual disabilities.
As detailed in the complaint, most CMS notices are provided only in standard-print formats. Most of these documents are unavailable in accessible formats, such as in Braille, large print or an audio recording, or compatible with screen-access software.
The CMS’ official guidance to contractors allegedly provides “no information” on making notices accessible, nor does it provide much guidance to beneficiaries. Moreover, the CMS’ hotline often makes it difficult to leave messages and is otherwise confusing, the lawsuit alleges, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
“Receiving (Medicare Summary Notices) in inaccessible formats thus compromises blind beneficiaries’ ability to independently and privately verify their co-payment obligations, address billing discrepancies and denials of service, or to dispute billing decisions through appeals, as can their sighted peers,” the lawsuit states. “As a result, failure by CMS to communicate in accessible formats ensures that…NFB members must sacrifice their privacy and independence to participate as Medicare recipients and puts them at risk of financial liabilities or penalties if a particular service or necessary medical equipment has not been covered by Medicare, or of exceeding Medicare service limits such as hospitalization days.”
The filing follows an investigation by the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, which is assisting the NFB in the lawsuit.
DREDF filed complaints with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Human Rights in 2011 and 2012. The complaints alleged a variety of allegations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which operates similarly to the Americans with Disabilities Act and applies to the federal government and contractors.
In August 2014, the DREDF and CMS reached an agreement, requiring the agency to complete a Section 504 Self-Assessment by the end of 2014, and create a “Long-Term Action Plan” by April 2015, to bring it into compliance.
The CMS has yet to publicize a Self-Assessment.
“We are outraged that blind people do not have access to their personal Medicare and Medicaid information forty years after the passage of the Rehabilitation act and almost a year after CMS promised to implement a plan for equal access,” NFB President Mark A. Riccobono said in a news release. “Today blind people readily access information in more ways than ever before but even large print access, the simplest possible solution for those with sufficient residual vision, is not made available.
“This continued disregard for the privacy and civil rights of the blind is inexcusable, and blind Americans will not tolerate.”