20th anniversary of ADA: A time of celebration and shame

Sunday, September 26, 2010

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark legislation that helped bring people with disabilities into the mainstream. Historically, society tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities. The 1990 law sought to assure equality of opportunity, full participation in society and independent living. No longer would the most frail among us be subject to isolation and discrimination. Today there are 54 million Americans living with a disability, up 11 million in the two decades since the law was passed.

The ADA accelerated a colossal change in the way people with disabilities are treated. It has eliminated physical and emotional barriers, and in doing so has led to higher quality of life for the disabled and a richer experience for us all. Providing equal access to buildings, health care and education required change, and we changed for the better. Unfortunately, as we mark this important anniversary, the bureaucrats in Washington are busy on a new scheme that will bring serious harm to millions with disabilities. This new scheme, dreamed up in the back corridors of Washington and pushed into law in the middle of the night, seeks to reduce access to assistive technology and medical equipment used by people with disabilities.

Washington's new program eliminates the patients' right to choose a professional medical provider for essential items like power wheelchairs and medical oxygen. Instead, those with disabilities will be left to source such equipment and services from a handful of dealers who provide the cheapest equipment and very limited services.

So extreme is the new program that in its initial phase, Washington bureaucrats are eliminating more than 80% of power wheelchair providers and more than 70% of existing oxygen providers. A recent study by a Ph.D. from the University of Northern Iowa predicted "a significant reduction in the number of medical equipment suppliers in Iowa, where The VGM Group is based, leading to a significant reduction in patient access." Experts believe as many as 40% of Iowa's medical equipment suppliers will disappear, leaving many of our communities without a supplier, forced to rely on a UPS shipment or a distant warehouse to meet essential medical needs.

My Mom lived with the assistance of home oxygen for her last five years. Her Charles City-based supplier team included a respiratory therapist who checked on her regularly and a service team that provided weekly delivery of portable tanks, allowing her to stay active. Further, like much of Iowa, Charles City homes lost power a dozen times in the five years Mom was on oxygen. Each time, the local supplier made sure Mom had ample back-up oxygen support, giving her peace of mind and safety. Had she been served out of a warehouse or distant city, she never would have received this level of service and her quality of life would have been much worse. Ironically, the ADA mandated accessible buildings and handicapped parking spaces, but this new bureaucracy will keep millions of disabled people isolated by limiting their access to the assistive technologies they need to be active. Do we really want our disabled and frail elderly forced to live with the low bidder for essential medical technology and services? It sure doesn't seem like the dream that was the ADA.

More than 250 members of the U.S. House, including all five of Iowa's congressmen, have signed on to support a bill to reverse this bad healthcare policy, but the Senate is unmoved.

The ADA was a landmark civil rights legislation. It was a bill of rights for persons with disabilities, a formal acknowledgement that Americans with disabilities are Americans first and that they're entitled to the same rights and freedoms as everybody else. Americans have always enjoyed the freedom to choose which healthcare provider best supports their unique needs. The 20th anniversary of the ADA is no time to start taking away those freedoms. hme

Mike Mallaro is CFO and CIO of The VGM Group, and a regular speaker and writer on national home healthcare issues.