BOSTON–Citing a history of discrimination, advocates met at a forum Wednesday to address problems those with disabilities face in receiving adequate medical care.
“Our current health care system creates a hidden class, or hidden classes, of people,” said Dennis Heaphy, a health analyst with the Disability Policy Consortium.
Often, he said, doctor and nurses provide “uninformed and prejudiced services that treat people as a disability,” rather than as a person with a disability.
Heaphy joined with four other panelists at “Building Bridges to a Universally Designed Health Care System,” a forum sponsored by advocacy group Health Care for All at the Boston Foundation, 75 Arlington St.
“When we looked at disabilities, we know that we haven’t achieved the (health care) outcomes we wanted,” said Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Health Care for All’s executive director.
Among the speakers at the forum attended by some 50 disability advocates, Amanda Nichols, health care policy director for the Waltham-based disability advocacy group the Arc of Massachusetts, said people with disabilities have been historically viewed as “deficient.”
“There’s a belief that people with disabilities are sick,” she said. She and some advocates stated that the physical and intellectual disabilities people have are a part of who they are, rather than an illness.
Bill Henning, executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living, blamed a lack of knowledge and sensitivity from health care providers when dealing with disability issues.
For example, he said, physically disabled women are less likely to get pap smears or mammograms than their peers.
According to a 2008 report from the Arc of Massachusetts that was distributed at the forum, it was found that health care professionals “lack knowledge about the specific health care needs of patients who do not reflect the ‘typical’ patient.”
To counter these problems, Heaphy said doctors and other health care providers need to receive additional disability-specific training to have the sensitivity and know-how to properly treat disabled people.
Some health providers disagreed with some of the points made at the forum. Rachel Kagno, a spokeswoman for Newton-Wellesley Hospital, said in an e-mail that “it is our job to ensure that each patient feels they are being cared for appropriately.” She said the hospital factors a person’s background into care.
Stephen Shestakofsky, state legislation director of the Waltham-based Massachusetts Medical Society who attended the event, agreed that health care providers should have more education and sensitivity, but rejected the idea discussed at the forum that the Legislature should mandate such training.
But Shestakofsky said the society agreed with Health Care for All’s support of efforts to provide greater state funding to health care providers who give care to disabled people.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts also supports such state payments, said Tara Murray, company public relations director. She said the initiative matches the health insurance provider’s belief in paying for quality treatment.
But the calls for additional spending come at a time of severe state budget cuts. In the face of budget shortfalls, Gov. Deval Patrick slashed $8.3 million from the Department of Public Health, $10.3 million from the Department of Mental Health and $7.78 million from the Department of Developmental Services.
Georgia Maheras with Health Care for All said elderly people with disabilities incur monthly medical costs six to nine times higher than does the average person.
Despite the extra health care costs incurred by disabled people, Slemmer said “the (health care) system has to reflect the needs of everyone.”