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April 10, 2003

Parkway Hospital Discriminated Against Deaf Patient: Attorney

From: Queens Chronicle, NY - Apr 10, 2003

by Robert Brodsky , Central and Mid Queens Editor
April 10, 2003

   The United States Attorney's Office has filed a discrimination lawsuit against Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills for failing to provide a deaf patient and her family with an effective sign language interpreter.
   The complaint, filed last week in Brooklyn's Eastern District Court of New York, charges Parkway and its CEO, Alan Zeitlan, with violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the Act, hospitals must provide qualified sign language interpreters to communicate with patients and family members who are deaf.

   According to the suit, on March 23, 2001, Norman Posner, 84, brought his wife, Sarah, then 77 and now deceased, to Parkway after she complained of dizziness, poor balance and having difficulty breathing.
   The couple, both of whom are deaf, told hospital administrators that they would need an interpreter to ensure that they clearly understood prospective medical procedures and their heath risks.
   Sarah Posner was later transferred to the hospital's Coronary Care Unit where she claims that doctors treating her communicated through lipreading and writing. Neither, the attorneys claim, proved effective.
   The complaint charges that from the day Posner was admitted through May 21st when she was discharged, the hospital failed to provide a "qualified sign language interpreter" to communicate with the couple.
   Rather, the suit contends that Mondays through Fridays, between March 26th and April 30th, the hospital utilized a full-time physical therapist, Joseph Potenza, who had limited knowledge of sign language as the family's interpreter.
   In his absence, "the nursing personnel used a pad and pencil, gestures and lipreading to communicate with Mr. Posner," the suit alleges.
   According to the suit, hospital policy did not provide for a full-time interpreter on staff nor the retention of an outside sign language translator.
   Parkway Hospital did not return calls for comment regarding the suit.
   Complicating the communication limitations was the fact that the Posner's adult son, Gerald, and his wife, Marlene, are also deaf. The only immediate relative who could hear, the Posner's daughter, Rita, was left with the burden of acting as a conduit of information between the family, the hospital and the staff, the suit alleges.
   The family claims it repeatedly requested a qualified interpreter, a request which was later reiterated in a letter from the New York Lawyers for Public Interest.
   However, except for two days in mid-April?when an outside interpreting service was brought in for several hours during the afternoon?the hospital insisted on using Potenza.
   Mrs. Posner's condition deteriorated after suffering a heart attack on March 28th and surgery was scheduled for April 9th.
   Norman Posner claims that Potenza attempted to explain the risks of the procedure and he was asked to sign a consent form. However, he claims that he did not understand the doctor's explanation, nor the risks involved.
   On April 19th, the complaint contends that the hospital's nursing staff asked Norman Posner for consent to insert a catheter and start dialysis treatment on his wife.
   Claiming that he did not fully understand the procedure, he contacted his son, who asked the nurse whether waiting two hours until a sign language interpreter could arrive would jeopardize his mother's health.
   The nurse told him that it probably would not, but that the delay could place her treatment behind other available patients. Gerald Posner then advised his father to sign the form so as not to risk his mother's health.
   "No one should be asked to undergo serious medical treatment without effective communication with the hospital, doctors, and staff about the treatment and the patient's condition," said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Ralph Boyd. "There is no excuse for failing to communicate effectively with patients who are disabled and this lawsuit is based upon that fundamental principle."
   The suit argues that because of Parkway's negligence, the Posner family suffered "emotional pain, suffering mental anguish and prolonged anxiety. They feared that they would miscommunicate important information about Sarah Posner's condition and treatment."
   In addition, as the only hearing member of the family, Dr. Rita Posner allegedly suffered severe emotional distress. "The failure of the hospital to provide interpreters meant that Dr. Posner was often forced to be the clearing house for information for her deaf parents."
   The lawsuit asks that Parkway change its policy by employing and training full-time interpreters for deaf patients and family members, pay civil penalties and award the Posners unspecified monetary damages.
   "Effective communication is particularly crucial in the health care setting," said Roslynn Mauskopf, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "We are committed to ensuring that health care providers comply with the ADA's requirements and that individuals with disabilities or their families are not subjected to unequal treatment."
   The Parkway lawsuit comes on the heels of a recent settlement between the Justice Department and Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut. The settlement calls for the medical facility?which provides care for patients undergoing mental health treatment and addiction therapy?to provide sign language interpreters on staff.
   The agreement, which could set a precedent in the Parkway case, also led to the creation of a statewide on-call system to ensure that sign language interpreters are available to hospitals within one hour of being requested.
   Sarah Posner died months after her being released from Parkway Hospital. Her death is not considered linked to the treatment.

©Queens Chronicle-Central Edition 2003