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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

St. Joseph settles deaf pair’s claims

NASHUA – St. Joseph Hospital has agreed to improve its interpretation services for deaf patients after being accused of failing to communicate properly with people who are hard of hearing.

In a settlement reached with the U.S. attorney’s office, St. Joseph Hospital will also erase the $10,000 medical bill of the two deaf people who forwarded the allegations to the federal government.

Sheila Coombs and Gary Catania accused St. Joseph Hospital and its affiliated medical practices of providing inadequate medical care to them and their children between 2005 and 2008 because they didn’t have access to sign language interpreters.

St. Joseph Hospital and its medical practice umbrella, SJ Physician Services, did not admit any liability in the settlement, which was announced by federal prosecutors Tuesday.

But they agreed they would “establish a program to ensure that they provide effective communication to deaf and hard-of-hearing patients in the future,” according to a statement released by the U.S. attorney’s office.

Part of that program will ensure that interpreters are on staff and available at any time to patients, said Beverly Robinson, the hospital’s legal counsel.

St. Joseph and SJ Physician Services “are working towards having people available 24 hours a day,” Robinson said.

Currently, the hospital and its affiliates do not have interpreters on staff but have an arrangement with outside interpreters who are on call, she said.

Coombs and Catania, who are deaf, alleged they were unable to communicate adequately with St. Joseph Hospital and SJ Physician Services personnel while they and their children received medical treatment on various occasions between 2005 and 2008, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Coombs and Catania communicate primarily through American Sign Language, and they alleged the hospital and its medical services didn’t provide ASL interpreters.

Officials from the U.S. attorney’s office didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

“Under the ADA, health care providers must furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in press release about the settlement.

“The ADA applies to all hospital programs and services, such as emergency room care, inpatient and outpatient services, surgery, clinics, educational classes, and cafeteria and gift shop services.”

The hospital and its practices will also create a coordinator position to oversee the new program, Robinson said. And St. Joseph and SJ Physician Services will implement education efforts and policies, she said.

The hospital will be educating “the staff on the front lines and addressing patient needs,” Robinson said. This includes doctors, nurses and other staff members, she said.

Also, the hospital intends to use a video interpreter through a computer system.

Robinson said St. Joseph is looking to collaborate in this program with Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, which also settled with the U.S. attorney’s office over a complaint by a patient who claimed the hospital discriminated against him and his partner by not providing an interpreter.

SNHMC agreed to pay hearing-impaired patient Kenton Hermans $5,000 and to implement a program ensuring effective communication for deaf and hard-of-hearing patients.

SNHMC also admitted no liability in its settlement in July with the federal government.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or