NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's administration said Monday the governor has no intention to use — let alone try to implement — controversial 2016 crisis medical treatment guidance he inherited from a previous administration that has alarmed the state's disability community.
Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said in response to a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter's questions about the guidance, prepared by a then-Bill Haslam administration task force, has been stripped from the state Department of Health's website.
It drew fears from the disability community that patients could be cut off from medical aid if hospitals and doctors are hit with a massive influx of emergency cases during the coronavirus pandemic.
The guidance spurred a complaint to the head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HHS Civil Rights Division Director Roger Severino announced March 27 that Tennessee, Alabama, Kansas and Washington, with similar guidance, would be in violation of civil rights laws if they sought to implement them.
"This was guidance that was put together by the previous administration — and it's just that," Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson told the Times Free Press Tuesday afternoon. "It is not enforceable. It does not carry the weight of law. This is simply basically what a task force said and provided guidance for hospitals to develop their own plans around that. So it's up to the hospitals. You can take those recommendations or not. That's really up to the hospitals."
Lee, who took office in January 2019, appeared taken aback after a Times Free Press reporter asked questions about the issue in late March. Lee noted at the time "we have a crisis on our hands and it presents unique challenges. I'll just tell you this. This state has been incredibly committed to serving the heath, the health care and the well-being of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities. And we will continue to do that.
"And wherever this crisis has created a challenge on the health and human services side, we will address that," Lee emphasized.
Some members of Tennessee's disability community weren't entirely reassured.
Ferguson said Tuesday that "as the governor said we value every single life in Tennessee and especially those with physical or intellectual disabilities. And we want to make sure they are protected. And recognizing there is some confusion set off by this guidance, we took the guidance down from the website because people are interpreting it as an official, enforceable document by the Department of Health.
"And," Ferguson added, "that is not what it was or what it does. Former administration task force recommendations are not enforceable by the rule of law. And so in order to clear any confusion around where we stand on this issue and protecting the civil rights of every Tennessean, we had it removed from the website."
In his own guidance issued March 27 in response to formal complaints by disability advocates and groups in Tennessee and the three other states, HHS's Civil Rights Division Director Roger Severino stated that "persons with disabilities, with limited English skills, or needing religious accommodations should not be put at the end of the line for health services during emergencies."
Severino added that "our civil rights laws protect the equal dignity of every human life from ruthless utilitarianism."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.