Civil rights complaint filed over health care rationing in Idaho

A civil rights complaint has been filed against the state of Idaho for its health care rationing in hospitals, saying it discriminates against the elderly.

Justice in Aging, a group representing low-income older adults, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging the rationing of care was using age as a factor in whether a person should receive health services. 

Idaho moved to ration medical care statewide last week amid a surge in COVID-19 cases overwhelming hospitals. The policy allows hospitals to prioritize healthier patients who have the greatest chance to recover.

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The complaint takes issue with language in the state’s policy that says care should be prioritized to patients with more “life cycles.”

“When the policy shifts to the difficult task of resolving ties (where two similarly situated persons need a scarce resource), facially discriminatory criteria gives preference to younger patients over older ones, including a criterion based on the theory that older persons have enjoyed more ‘life cycles’ and, essentially, had their opportunity to live,” the complaint reads.

The complaint says these criteria even apply to two older adults whose age gaps are small.

“The tiebreaker language in Idaho is not limited to situations where there are large age differences between the two people needing care. By its terms, it would be applied in situations where there may be very little difference, such as a 60-year-old man and a 61-year-old man,” the complaint says. “When they are so clinically similar as to require a tie-breaker, this would lead to absurd and ageist result of denying care to the 61-year-old man simply because he is as little as one year older.”

The complaint also alleges the criteria is especially harmful to older Black and Native American people. 

“The focus on 'life years' disproportionately jeopardizes older adults of color, such as those in Black11 and Native American12 communities, who suffer from lower life expectancies due to systemic discrimination in healthcare and social services,” the complaint says. 

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Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesman Greg Stahl said in an email to The Hill he was not aware of the complaint and the system they use does not discriminate against anyone on the “basis of disability, race, color, national origin, age, sex, gender or exercise of conscience and religion.”

The tie-breaker criteria have not had to be used so far in the state and it is expected to be “very rare,” according to Stahl. 

Justice for Aging said in the complaint it wants the long term survival of patients not to be a factor when allocating resources.