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Monday, March 27, 2006

Gutting a Law Intended to Protect Children with Disabilities

Recently, a federal judge ignored contrary decisions from other courts and ruled that a Medicaid-dependent, Florida girl with severe disabilities had no right to challenge a state agency’s decision to deny her a power wheelchair, even though her doctors had deemed it medically necessary. The girl’s disabilities include paraplegia, developmental delay, scoliosis, Arnold Chiari Malformation, cloacal exstrophy, hydrocephalus, caudal regression, spina bifida and a tethered spinal cord.

Relying on protections spelled out in the Medicaid Act, the girl sued after the Florida agency responsible for dispensing Medicaid benefits refused her request for the wheelchair. Federal District Court Judge William Hodges, appointed by Richard Nixon, threw the case out of court. Refusing to reach the merits of the girl’s claim to the wheelchair, he ruled that Medicaid recipients don’t have the right to enforce the section of the Medicaid Act providing for necessary medical devices. The logical question, of course, is that if Medicaid recipients can’t enforce that provision, who can or will? The court’s decision leaves the girl and indigent people like her remediless.

Judge Hodges said he was bound by a 2002 Supreme Court opinion signed by the Court’s five most conservative members – the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy, and recently retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. That decision, Gonzaga v. Doe, has substantially curtailed the ability of individuals, especially poor people, to enforce federal safety net laws against state officials. But as rights-restricting as Gonzaga has proven to be, other courts have not found it to be as Draconian as Judge Hodges. In decisions interpreting the same provision of the Medicaid Act – decisions that Judge Hodges failed to acknowledge – another Florida judge and even the staunchly conservative Fifth Circuit have held that Medicaid recipients with disabilities possess the right to force state agencies to provide necessary medical equipment.

Judge Hodges concluded his opinion by stating that he “sympathize[d]” with the girl, but that “sympathy cannot be indulged to create bad law.” Yet by ruling in the girl’s favor, Judge Hodges would not have been indulging sympathy to create bad law; to the contrary, he would have been carrying out the legislature’s intentions. And by ruling against the girl, what he actually “indulged” was the hard Right’s antipathy toward meaningful enforcement of Congressional protections for society’s most vulnerable people.

A.G. v. Arnold, No. 5:05CV2790C10GRJ, 2006 WL 334218 (M.D.Fla. Feb. 13, 2006).

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