Following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR), St. Edward Mercy Medical Center (Mercy), in Fort Smith, Arkansas has agreed to make changes to its policies and procedures to comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504).
The settlement resulted from a complaint filed with OCR by a person with a lumbar and spinal disability who requires a service animal to assist him in a number of daily functions, including carrying and picking up items and helping to stabilize his walking. While the complainant sought emergency medical treatment for his father, Mercy refused to allow the service animal to accompany the complainant into the hospital. The complainant was told his service animal was not a “seeing eye dog” and the animal would need to be removed from the hospital because he could not show vaccination records or tags verifying the health of the animal. After an investigation, OCR found that Mercy’s policies and procedures regarding access to service animals inappropriately excluded service animals already being used by qualified individuals with disabilities other than vision impairment.
“Service animals are used by people with disabilities for various purposes and this action sends a strong reminder to facilities to ensure that people with service animals have an equal opportunity to participate in their programs and services,” said OCR Director Leon Rodriguez. “HHS is committed to continuing its strong enforcement of Section 504 and ensuring access to health care for all Americans.”
Under Section 504, a covered entity may not limit access to only those service animals used by persons who are blind or have low vision. A covered entity may also not deny access to a service animal based on an individual’s failure to produce a tag or other documentation demonstrating that the animal is a service animal or what tasks the service animal performs, or a veterinarian’s health certificate or other documentation of the service animal’s health.
Among the terms of the settlement agreement, Mercy will establish non-discrimination policies, provide notice to its staff and program participants of such policies, and ensure staff receives comprehensive training on their obligations to provide services without discrimination to qualified persons with disabilities and specific training on permitting service animals into its facility in accordance with Section 504.
People who believe that an entity receiving federal financial assistance has discriminated against them (or someone else) on the basis of disability, may file a complaint with OCR at: http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/civilrights/complaints. A copy of the Settlement Agreement in this matter, along with more information about OCR’s efforts to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1972 can be found at www.hhs.gov/ocr.