Arizona Senate panel OKs changes to virus care standards

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Medical personnel don PPE while attending to a patient (not infected with COVID-19) at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Facing complaints from advocates for people with disabilities, the Arizona Senate is eyeing legislation that would bar hospitals from considering a person’s potential lifespan, quality of life, or disability when the facilities are forced to ration care during the current or any future pandemic.

The proposal from Republican Sen. Nancy Barto of Phoenix, SB1374, instead would require hospitals that are assessing patients under state-adopted crisis standards of care to only assess a patient’s ability to survive the current hospitalization.

Barto said at a hearing Wednesday that the current standards, adopted last year to address the COVID-19 pandemic, could discriminate against disabled people. She said groups of disabled people and others weren’t included when the state and hospital officials developed the new guidelines to be used when resources are not available to care for all patients.

“When we look at key decisions like this being made without any kind of oversight, that’s why we’re here,” Barto said” “I think we have a duty as a Legislature to oversee what is actually being done. None of us were brought into this discussion.”

The disabled community is pushing the legislation, citing the potential for discrimination.

“It would ensure that any crisis standards of care activated by the Department of Health Services do not discriminate against people with disabilities,” said Asim Dietrich, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

Not everyone who testified at the Senate Health and Human Services committee hearing backed the change.

Dr. Patricia Mayer, director of clinical ethics at the Banner Health hospital chain who was involved in drafting the current COVID-19 guidelines, said putting the new requirements into law could lock out future updates to the standards, which have been in place for nearly a decade.

More importantly, she said, adopting a new law that prevents doctors from judging who gets treatment without being able to consider their realistic lifespan could lead to absurd results. For instance, under the bill, if two patients with COVID-19 were being assessed for who would get the only available ventilator and one had terminal cancer, that fact couldn’t be used to help make the decision. All that could be weighed is their ability to live through the current medical crisis.

“Under this bill, those two patients would have to be considered equally for that resource,” Mayer said. “And so it could require us to prioritize the terminally ill patient instead of the one without a terminal illness.”

Barto acknowledged her bill will need changes as it moves through the Legislature. The measure passed the committee on an 8-0 vote and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

The state allowed hospitals to use the standards during a brief period in July. But they have not been used since, even as the state saw a huge surge in virus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in recent months.

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.