Disabled people, advocates urge Gov. Newsom to spurn hospital and nursing home request for COVID-19 legal immunity

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By Joe Eskenazi | Mission Local | May 6, 2020

Stacey Milbern urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to reject hospital and nursing homes’ request for legal indemnification from COVID-related suits. Without checks and balances on such facilities she said, ‘disabled people of color are left alone in a system that already doesn’t care about us.’

Stacey Milbern took a deep drag off her ventilator, which, for her, is not a last-ditch means of staving off COVID-19 but an everyday requirement. 

“Doctors,” she says, “take an oath to treat all patients equally. Yet we know this is not the case.” 

Milbern joined a handful of disabled people, advocates, and, like herself, both of these, in a Wednesday morning virtual press conference organized by Senior and Disability Action. The speakers described Gov. Gavin Newsom as “poised” to approve a pending request from powerful hospital and assisted living lobbying groups to provide these facilities with broad immunity from civil and even criminal liability during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They urged him to not do this.  

If the governor were to grant this sweeping request, Milbern and others said it would have disastrous consequences for people like them. It would also provide a potential windfall for hospitals and nursing facilities no longer facing legal repercussions for the predictable results of placing contagious COVID patients alongside society’s most vulnerable individuals.  

“In an ideal world, a skilled nursing facility would treat me well. But, instead of lobbying to improve care, they’re lobbying for immunity if they kill COVID patients like me,” said Ira X Armstrong. 

The Berkeley resident has ostensibly beaten coronavirus, but only after weeks of debilitating pain and weakness that resulted in persistent lung damage. 

“I really don’t know where to go,” Armstrong continued. “If I go to a hospital, I may not come out.”

Mike Dark, the staff attorney at the San Francisco-based California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform last week painted a disturbing picture for Mission Local. He noted that, outside of particularly hard-hit parts of New York, acute hospitals are reeling not from a crush of sick COVID patients — not yet, thankfully — but the inability to do cash-generating elective surgeries. 

Skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities, he continued, could reap four times as much compensation from a COVID patient as an average Medi-Cal patient. But for the obvious danger and likely legal fallout, shunting COVID patients into nursing facilities could be a profitable enterprise for all involved. 

The broad gift of legal immunity would solve that problem. For the institutions, at least. 

“Under the immunity proposal that Gov. Newsom is considering, a nursing home could recklessly and dangerously put a resident at risk, by not giving them necessary care, by knowingly ignoring residents who are desperately sick, and they could not be sued,” Dark said today. 

“That also means that nothing is left to discourage them from putting residents in danger.”

Mission Local’s messages for Gov. Newsom’s office have not yet been returned. 

“Remember, Governor: If you live long enough, you’ll get old yourself,” said Elizabeth Grigsby, a disabled woman and former board and care facility resident. “When you need someone to take care of you, you might be in the same boat. Just because you’re young and vital now, it’s not gonna last forever.”