By Kristina Launey and Julia Sarnoff

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Justice recently issued Guidance for telehealth accessibility with specific examples.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many health care providers and patients turned to telehealth as a way to provide and receive health care services while in lockdown.  Telehealth allows providers to see patients via videoconference (or telephone) and exchange written materials electronically.  While telehealth has many advantages, it can also present challenges to those with visual, hearing, cognitive, or other disabilities.  Telehealth websites may not be fully compatible with screen reader technologies relied on by individuals who are blind or have low vision, for example.

Recognizing these challenges, on July 29, 2022, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a joint Guidance on Nondiscrimination in Telehealth: Federal Protections to Ensure Accessibility to People with Disabilities and Limited English Proficient Persons.

The Guidance states that all entities subject to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act should review their telehealth systems, policies, and processes to ensure accessibility for telehealth programs for all persons with disabilities.  The Guidance also provides specific examples of actions that health care providers may need to take to ensure that health care offered via telehealth is accessible, as well as resources for providers and patients about telehealth and civil rights protections.

Some examples provided in the Guidance for how health care providers can provide accessible telehealth services include:

  • Ensuring that the telehealth electronic platform is coded to support screen reader software used by blind individuals (which is in alignment with the accessible technology requirements under Section 1557 of the ACA and Medicare rules).
  • Providing instructions or allowing extra time for a patient to become familiar with the telehealth platform in advance of a remote appointment.
  • Ensuring that health care providers communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities, including about provider availability, records access, and during appointments.

These are just a few of the examples provided in the Guidance.  Health care providers subject to the laws covered by the Guidance should review the Guidance closely to ensure that their telehealth services meet HHS and DOJ’s expectations for accessible telehealth services, and seek counsel experienced in accessibility for assistance.

Edited by John W. Egan