CommunicationFIRST Files First Challenge to Hospital Visitor Policies (UPDATED)

blurry image of well-lit hospital hallway with open red door visible at left[REVISED AND UPDATED JUNE 10, 2020 with additional detail about the first complaint and links to the second complaint filed May 12, the Open Letter to Hartford HealthCare CEO, National Public Radio coverage, and Resolution announcements]

Earlier today, CommunicationFIRST, together with Disability Rights Connecticut, the Center for Public Representation, and the Arc of the United States, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (HHS OCR) regarding the failure to provide people with disabilities reasonable accommodations to hospital no-visitor policies in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the first OCR complaint filed regarding a state’s hospital visitor policies during this pandemic.

Stating that people with disabilities are being “denied their right to equal access to proper medical care and treatment” when hospitalized during the COVID-19 pandemic, the formal complaint urged HHS OCR to “immediately investigate and take swift action” to uphold the equal rights of individuals with disabilities and advise Connecticut to “eliminate its discriminatory guidance and instead develop revised, mandatory, uniform, standards.”

The complaint focuses on recent guidance issued by the state of Connecticut that puts many people with disabilities at risk of unequal access to medical treatment, including inadequate access to effective communication, in violation of federal disability rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The state’s guidance only allows a support person to accompany someone with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD) who is served by the state’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS), denying other disabled people in the state of Connecticut the reasonable accommodations they need to access medical services and are entitled to under the law. Numerous other states, including New Jersey and New York, have issued policies requiring hospitals to make reasonable modifications to their no-visitor policies for people with a range of disabilities.

The 12-page filing describes in detail the circumstances surrounding the hospitalization of three individuals in recent weeks, each in a different Connecticut hospital, where the lack of a statewide policy allowing a patient support person to be present during hospitalization resulted in violations of the equal rights of the individuals with disabilities, in violation of federal law, and jeopardized their quality of care. The individuals include a 27-year-old woman, 48-year-old man, and 73-year-old woman.

According to the complaint, as a result of Connecticut’s current policy, individuals with disabilities are being denied equal access to medical treatment, including by being denied effective communication; being deprived of their right to make informed decisions and provide informed consent; being subjected to the unnecessary use of physical and chemical restraints; being denied adequate and necessary medical treatment and care; and being subjected to substantial and lasting emotional harm.

Connecticut hospitals currently have strict “no visitor” policies, which began in March. The only exceptions in place allow one visitor into the hospital for the following reasons: end-of-life; pediatric care; labor/delivery; and outpatient surgery/procedures.

“Connecticut’s policy enumerating exceptions to no-visitor policies inexplicably excludes certain people based on their disability diagnosis and whether or not they receive services from the state,” the complaint explains. “As such the policy contains illegal eligibility criteria that screens out individuals with disabilities from accessing services. Compounding its illegal actions further, Connecticut issued a policy that is unenforceable, thereby perpetuating the ongoing discriminatory conduct by the hospitals.”

With the exception of three Connecticut hospitals operated by Nuvance Health, which also operates hospitals in New York, not a single Connecticut hospital makes an exception to its visitation prohibition for support persons for individuals with disabilities.

CommunicationFIRST and the other complainants urge OCR to “advise Connecticut that it must eliminate its discriminatory guidance and instead develop revised, mandatory, uniform, standards for allowing patient support providers within hospital settings during this public health emergency.”

You can read the full May 4 complaint here.

More information on hospital visitation policies and key exceptions necessary for people with communication disabilities can be found on our COVID-19 Guidance Page tracking such policies. CommunicationFIRST's COVID-19 Communication Rights Toolkit can be accessed here.


On May 12, 2020, a second complaint was filed with HHS OCR against Hartford Hospital in relation that specific hospital's denial of reasonable accommodations to the no-visitor policy for the supports needed by individual Patient G.S.

On May 15, 2020, CommunicationFIRST and four other national disability rights groups published an Evaluation Framework to assist stakeholders in determining whether state and hospital no-visitor policies unfairly discriminate against patients with disabilities. The document lists some of the critical elements found in non-discriminatory visitor policies and includes links to and language from some of the better state policies.

On May 17, 2020, the four-week anniversary of Patient G.S.'s admission to Hartford Hospital, and after weeks of negotiations and mediation with Hartford Hospital failed to provide Patient G.S. access to effective communication and other disability supports she required to access medical care, Patient G.S.'s family wrote an Open Letter to the CEO of Hartford HealthCare Corporation (click here for html version on Disability Rights Connecticut website).

Also on May 17, 2020, National Public Radio aired a 4-minute story by Joseph Shapiro that featured Patient G.S.'s struggle to access in-person disability-related supports at Hartford Hospital. The audio story is accompanied by a written version with photos and can be accessed here.

On June 9, 2020, HHS OCR publicly announced it had resolved the two complaints against the State of Connecticut and Hartford Hospital. Our press release on the resolution can be accessed here. And HHS OCR's press release can be accessed here.