Patient advocates, members of the public and state lawmakers are urging the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County to withdraw a case it has filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, citing concerns that the lawsuit will strip millions of vulnerable Americans of their power to hold states accountable when they do not receive benefits they’re entitled to.
HHC, a municipal corporation, operates the Marion County Public Health Department, Eskenazi Health and 78 skilled nursing facilities across the state.
HHC filed the lawsuit after the family of a nursing home resident at one of their facilities sued the agency for allegedly violating the resident’s rights –– the family said the nursing home overmedicated him instead of treating him for dementia.
Lower courts ruled that the family could sue HHC, given legal precedent. But HHC appealed the decision and then broadened the scope of their appeal by questioning the fundamental right of beneficiaries of federal safety net programs to file such lawsuits against state agencies in the first place. The Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments on the case next month.
At HHC’s monthly board of trustees meeting Tuesday, board members did not address the lawsuit. But during the public comment period, advocates and lawmakers took the opportunity to express their concerns.
Among them: Hannah Carlock, director of public policy with the disability rights group Arc of Indiana.
"The Arc of Indiana, along with those that we serve, urge you to drop the U.S. Supreme Court case that would strip the right to challenge civil rights violations from providers of safety net programs," Carlock said.
Morgan Daly, director of public policy with the Indiana Statewide Independent Living Council, made a similar plea.
"I'm asking HHC to withdraw their case with the United States Supreme Court and take every action you can to make sure this case does not proceed forward,” Daly said.
State Rep. Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis) also spoke up, urging HHC to reconsider. Shackleford is also chair of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus.
"Many of our constituents are on Medicaid and on [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and they would be horrified … if they knew the board was the driver behind removing their rights,” she said.
Public policy and legal experts say the outcome of the case could affect tens of millions of poor, elderly and disabled Americans across the U.S. For decades, people have sued and won cases against state agencies when they failed to receive benefits they’re entitled to through federal programs like Medicaid.
But HHC and the state of Indiana argue such cases cost the state taxpayer dollars and are not necessary to ensure enforcement of federal entitlements, stating there are other ways to do so. But public health and legal experts and patient advocates argue that these routes are often not sufficient to enact change and prevent harm.
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita issued a statement in support of HHC, noting that Indiana has litigated more than 1,200 civil rights cases over the past three years, and such cases “impose significant burdens on state and local governments — and thereby upon individual taxpayers.”
Rokita said his office is “proud to fight for the fiscal integrity of the state when administering federal programs” and looks forward to “combining forces” with HHC to argue this case before the Supreme Court in November.
HHC did not respond to a request for comment.
This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes the Indianapolis Recorder and Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Contact Farah at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @Farah_Yousrym.