Friday, January 30, 2015

Patty’s Story: The Fight for Speech Augmentative Communication Devices

By Liza Jones
Attorney for the Utah Disability Law Center

In September 2012, the Utah Court of Appeals overturned a state Medicaid policy denying coverage for speech augmentative communication devices (SACDs) to adults over 21.  

Since that ruling, the Disability Law Center (DLC) has been working with speech therapists to let people know that they can now ask for communication devices for adults.  SACDs were made famous by world-renown scientist, Stephen Hawking.
Patty Olguin now has a speech device to communicate with her caregivers.
Patty Olguin

The appeal was originally filed in 2010 by the Disability Law Center on behalf of Patty Olguin and Nicholas Conley, whose requests for SACDs were denied by Utah’s Medicaid agency. 

Olguin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of eight. After a medical procedure in 2002, she had a stroke and lost the ability to speak clearly. Since then, she has been unable to communicate effectively with the people around her. 

But Patty knows what she wants to say. For a decade, she has relied on nursing staff to guess at what may be causing her to feel pain or discomfort. Choosing the color of a shirt or a picture on a wall may seem small. For Patty, however, it represents the beginning of freedom and independence.

Conley has cerebral palsy. Until the age of 22, the school district provided him with an SACD. After leaving school he lost access to the device. Ever since, he had been unable to communicate his most basic wants and needs. He missed communicating meaningfully with friends and family.

During the appeal, DLC Attorney Robert Denton argued that Medicaid’s policy of denying SACDs to Utahns over 21 should be overturned because it violates the Federal Medicaid Act.

The Court agreed, ruling that Utah Medicaid did not have the discretion to deny SACDs to adults. It also agreed that the policy was not reasonable, and illegally treated people differently. The decision makes it clear that the agency cannot deny adults many of the other services and devices it covers for children.

When DLC staff visited Olguin to tell her she had won, her smile was immediate and overwhelming. Our hope is that all eligible Medicaid clients will get the services and equipment they need. Like Nicholas and Patty, we feel the decision has the potential to be far reaching.

If you receive Medicaid benefits and have been denied a SACD or other assistive technology, please contact the Disability Law Center at 800-662-9080 to learn about the services we can provide to you.

*The Disability Law Center (DLC) is a private, non-profit organization designated by the governor as Utah’s Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agency.  Our mission is to enforce and strengthen laws that protect the opportunities, choices and legal rights of Utahns with disabilities.  Our services are provided free of charge.

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