Villarreal v. Maram: Consent Decree will ensure that people with disabilities receive power wheelchairs

Settlement to increase the independence of people with disabilities

CHICAGO – Recognizing that nursing home residents with severe disabilities deserve [motorized wheelchairs] immediately, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois today entered a consent decree resolving a class action discrimination complaint brought by four individuals with disabilities against the Director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. The decree (Jackson v. Maram No. 04–C–0174) mandates that all Medicaid–eligible nursing facility residents in Illinois be provided with, when medically appropriate, a motorized wheelchair.

The named plaintiffs, who all live in Medicaid–funded nursing homes, filed the original complaint for themselves and other nursing home residents who were denied or not provided medically–necessary motorized wheelchairs. Without power wheelchairs, they were not able to get around independently or access the services they would need to leave the nursing home and live in the community. Unable to use public transportation, go to a movie, or visit friends and family, these residents spent many days confined to their beds.

Roel Villareal, one of the original plaintiffs, who, since the complaint was filed in 2004, has been approved for a power wheelchair, said, “Everyone who needs a wheelchair should have one. Without a wheelchair, I spent most of my days in bed, unable to do anything on my own. The motorized wheelchair gives me the choice to visit family and friends as I please and live more independently.” Mr Villareal's situation is similar to thousands of other nursing home residents in Illinois.

The complaint alleged that denying the applications for power wheelchairs was in violation of the Social Security Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The Department of Healthcare and Family Services has responsibility to assure that nursing homes who participate in Medicaid help people with disabilities become as independent as possible,” said Max Lapertosa, an attorney from Access Living who represented the plaintiffs. “We are pleased that the State settled with the plaintiffs on this important issue,” Lapertosa added. “We look forward to working with the Department of Healthcare and Family Services to implement the consent decree.”

Under terms of the decree, among other actions, the Department is required to:

•notify nursing home residents of their right to a motorized wheelchair when medically necessary;

•notify nursing facilities of their responsibility to assess residents for motorized wheelchairs, using qualified and trained professionals; and,

•ensure that residents receive motorized wheelchairs if recommended as medically necessary.

In addition, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services is required to take disciplinary action against nursing homes that fail to ensure that eligible recipients receive power wheelchairs.

One of Access Living's core goals is to end the unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities in nursing homes and institutions. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court made this goal the law of the land in its landmark decision, Olmstead v. L.C ., which declared that unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities violates their civil rights. “Access Living and the disability community have been working hard to encourage Illinois to fulfill its responsibility under Olmstead,” said Marca Bristo, Access Living's President and CEO. “Without the ability to move around, it is impossible for thousands of people with disabilities to live outside of nursing homes. Today's decision will give people with disabilities the ability to move around independently, which will empower them to make their own choices about where to live. Power wheelchairs for people who need them are like freedom machines.”

According to Stephen Gold, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney who co–represented the plaintiffs, “When a person cannot leave his or her bed due to his or her inability to secure a motorized wheelchair, it encourages unnecessary segregation in nursing homes. Today's settlement will give thousands of people living in nursing homes the ability to secure a motorized wheelchair and empower them to live independently.”

Governed and staffed by a majority of people with disabilities, Access Living is Chicago's only center for independent living and works toward the full equality, inclusion and empowerment of all people with disabilities. For more information, contact Gary Arnold, Access Living, at 312.640.2199 (voice) or 312.640.2102 (tty).

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