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Disabled sue state agency for forms

Say MassHealth failed to assist on documents

Members of the Disability Policy Consortium announced a lawsuit against MassHealth, saying it did not meet obligations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, at City Hall Plaza in Boston. Members of the Disability Policy Consortium announced a lawsuit against MassHealth, saying it did not meet obligations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, at City Hall Plaza in Boston. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / July 27, 2011

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Eight disabled residents and a local advocacy group filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday against the state agency that provides health care to more than a million low-income people, arguing it has failed to comply with laws that require documents to cater to the needs of the deaf, blind, and other physically and mentally impaired recipients of care.

On the 21st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Boston-based Disability Policy Consortium and other plaintiffs - four who are blind, two who are deaf, and two with other disabilities - filed a suit in US District Court in Boston, alleging MassHealth violated the law by failing to provide written notices in Braille or other electronic forms, failing to use American Sign Language to communicate, and not listing phone numbers to help the hearing impaired on the agency’s website.

“The ADA was pretty clear that state governments have to make communications accessible to people with disabilities, so they can participate as fully as anyone else,’’ said Bill Allan, executive director of the Disability Policy Consortium. “The Commonwealth has ignored this issue for years. It has been brought up to them in reports and by individuals. It’s time for them to take action.’’

Jennifer Kritz, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said the administration was examining the lawsuit. “At this point, we have not yet had the opportunity to fully review the complaint, so I cannot comment on it at this point,’’ she wrote in an e-mail.

Allan did not know how much it would cost the state to comply. “Costs should not be an issue; this is really a civil rights issue,’’ he said. “That this administration has not thoroughly committed to adhering to the law is astounding.’’

In the lawsuit, several plaintiffs said they had their health care canceled or suspended because MassHealth sent them forms they could not read or fill out without assistance.

“Where necessary to ensure that communications with individuals with hearing, vision, and cognitive/developmental disabilities are as effective as communications with nondisabled persons, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as a ‘public entity,’ must provide appropriate aids,’’ such as qualified interpreters, note-takers, and computer transcription services, the plaintiffs argued in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court order to require MassHealth to comply with the law and to provide unspecified monetary damages “that will fairly and adequately compensate each plaintiff for his or her endurance of great mental, psychological, and emotional pain, suffering, and anguish, shame, mortification, indignity, disgrace, embarrassment, humiliation, anger, discomfort, stigma, demoralization, inconvenience, delay, worry, distress, anxiety, nervousness, depression, powerlessness, and other injuries to his or her feelings and sensibilities and continued suffering of all of the foregoing for an indefinite period of time.’’

One blind plaintiff, Sarah Gales, 33, of North Adams, said she joined the lawsuit after MassHealth officials told her she would have to come to an office in Springfield if she wanted help reading the forms they sent.

“Their solution was ridiculous,’’ she said, noting a co-worker helped her fill out the form, learning her salary and other private information. “I think it’s disgusting that, 21 years after the passage of the ADA, our own government is still treating us like second-class citizens.’’

Another blind plaintiff, Bob Hachey, 50, of Waltham, said he grew tired of asking MassHealth officials to send him the forms by Braille or e-mail, which allows him to listen to his messages.

“They said they would read the letters over the phone, but I said they could do better than that,’’ he said. “It’s hard to take notes over the phone.’’

He said he nearly missed several deadlines, because he couldn’t read his mail.

“It’s sad we had to go this route,’’ he said. “We tried working with these folks for a long time. I think it’s just a matter of stubbornness on the part of the Commonwealth.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him @davabel.