Court: Denial of communication devices violates law

December 3, 2012 by Sue Reeves

scales of justiceEarlier this year, the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City received a favorable decision in Conley v. Utah Department of Health. According to Adina Zahradnikova, executive director of the center, the Division of Medicaid and Health Financing will not appeal the decision which will allow a large group of Utahns with disabilities to access speech augmentative communication devices (SACDs), thereby improving their functional independence and quality of life.

The Utah Court of Appeals ruled that the Department of Health’s Division of Medicaid and Health Financing’s categorical denial of SACDs to individuals over the age of 22 is a violation of the comparability of services provision of federal Medicaid law.

Plaintiff Nicholas Conley has cerebral palsy. While in school, the district provided him with a SACD. After leaving the school system at age 22, he lost access to the device. Now he is unable to communicate his most basic wants and needs orally, nor can he any longer communicate meaningfully with friends and family members.

Plaintiff Patty Olguin lives in a nursing home. She has multiple sclerosis and dysarthria, a speech disorder that renders her unable to communicate orally. It is difficult for her to direct her medical treatment or tell the staff about pain or other medical problems she is having. Her inability to communicate freely also significantly decreases her ability to enjoy life in the community.

The legal question is whether the Department can fund SACDs for children, but not adults. The court held that the distinction in policy between adults and children is irrational and an abuse of discretion. This decision affects not only an adult’s eligibility to receive Medicaid-funded speech devices, but potentially many other services and devices that are currently only available to children.