PEORIA — A 2012 protest against OSF Saint Francis Medical Center's treatment of the hearing-impaired has grown into a federal lawsuit alleging the hospital's parent, OSF Healthcare System, discriminates against patients with disabilities at OSF Healthcare facilities.
"We reached out to OSF before we filed the lawsuit asking them to sit down and discuss solutions. They simply did not respond," said Andres Gallegos, an attorney for the 17 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.
The suit alleges patients with disabilities who go to St. Francis, OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington and OSF St. James Medical Center in Pontiac encounter "multiple and pervasive" barriers that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and prevent patients from receiving equal access to health care.
According to Gallegos, it's the first lawsuit of its kind in Illinois. "Unfortunately, it's not the first time this issue has been addressed in Illinois," he said. "Other hospitals determine it's best to address these issues without having to defend themselves in federal court."
The lawsuit is part of a growing movement to enforce ADA requirements in hospitals.
Gallegos' law firm, Robbins, Salomon and Patt of Chicago, is addressing similar issues at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana and Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
The U.S. Department of Justice also has quietly settled access complaints against health-care providers across the country, most recently three in Illinois, through its Barrier-Free Healthcare Access Initiative launched in 2012.
The Justice Department is not involved in the lawsuit against OSF Healthcare. Jim Lewis, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois, which covers 44 counties, including Peoria, said his office has quietly settled complaints against about 10 doctors, dentists and a southern Illinois hospital in recent years.
"To the best of our knowledge, we didn't get a complaint about the Peoria hospital," Lewis said.
Similar to the stance it took after deaf protesters and their supporters picketed St. Francis in May 2012, OSF Healthcare maintains its facilities are accessible to people with disabilities.
"While it is not our practice to comment on pending litigation, OSF is compliant with federal and state law and denies that it has liability to any of the plaintiffs," Robert Brandfass, OSF Healthcare's senior vice president of legal services, said in an emailed statement.
"OSF is proud of its efforts to make its facilities and services accessible to those members of its patient community who may be disabled, and we are confident the dispute ultimately will be resolved in its favor," Brandfass wrote.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Peoria last June. On Friday, the heath-care giant responded to the claims in a 65-page document that went paragraph by paragraph through the lawsuit and denied any wrongdoing.
The plaintiffs reside in Peoria, Tazewell, McLean and Livingston counties. Their complaints range from failure to provide adequate auxiliary aids, such as sign language interpreters or medical instructions written in Braille, to a lack of wheelchair-accessible weight scales, diminished levels of care at crucial medical episodes, and the absence of comprehensive policies and procedures to accommodate people with disabilities.
Page 2 of 2 - In the 2012 protest, about 40 deaf people and their supporters claimed St. Francis' growing reliance on Video Remote Interpreters, or VRIs, an Internet-based service similar to Skype, was plagued with equipment problems and miscommunications.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of people with disabilities and asks the court to find OSF Healthcare fails to provide adequate access for people with disabilities. The suit also asks for unspecified damages and attorneys' fees.
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.