Blind health plan members must have equal access to transportation benefits

Nancy Langenberger is blind. She relies on a guide dog to help her independently navigate the world. Nancy’s Medicare Advantage health plan, Blue Shield Promise Health Plan (“Promise Health”), includes a transportation benefit through which plan members can arrange in advance to be dropped off and picked up from medical appointments. This benefit is important to Nancy, who needs transportation to get to the doctor and dental visits that keep her well.

Federal and state law forbids Promise Health or its contracted drivers from refusing to allow a trained service animal like Nancy’s guide dog to accompany her. But Nancy has struggled to use her health plan’s transportation benefit. A new case filed in the Northern District of California by TRE Legal Practice alleges that Promise Health Plan made her inform them when her service animal traveled with her, disclosed to its contracted drivers that she had a service animal with her, and then allowed contracted drivers to illegally opt out of transporting Nancy because she used a service animal, causing her major delay and inconvenience.

As the law recognizes, service animals like Nancy’s guide dog are critical tools. Training from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, teaches Nancy’s guide dog to act as an extension of Nancy. She remembers, “I was overwhelmed with emotion my first time guiding with my guide dog, Norway, on a busy crowded street in downtown San Rafael.” She continues, “An instructor behind me said, ‘OK, Nancy, give him the command forward.‘ For the first time in many, many years, instead of walking slow and cautiously with my cane, I flew down the street as Norway zigged and zagged around every obstacle in our way. When we arrived at the corner traffic light he stopped and looked at me waiting for the next command.” It was, says Nancy, “a very emotional moment when I realized how much my life was going to change in ways I never dreamed of.”

A guide dog lays down and sniffs the hand of a small child
Norway, Nancy Langenberger’s guide dog, meets kids at the Academy of Science in San Francisco.

But Nancy can’t go everywhere on foot. Many health plans now recognize the value of arranged rides to medical appointments and include such benefits within health plan packages. Nancy gladly pays for these rides as part of the health care she purchases through her Promise Health plan. She wants the assurance that she can rely on the transportation benefit she’s paid for, without discrimination, and with the knowledge that her plan’s policies prevent drivers who break the law and refuse to transport service animals from continuing to provide Promise Health’s transportation benefits.

Unable to obtain this assurance without litigation, TRE Legal Practice filed a federal Complaint, pointing to violations of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the California Disabled Persons Act. Nancy’s suit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to stop Promise Health from continuing to unlawfully discriminate, compensatory and statutory damages for violating her legal rights and harming her, and reasonable attorney’s fees.

Aiding in the perpetuation of unequal access to health care by community members who rely on service animals is both wrong and illegal. Health plans must ensure that their blind plan members like Nancy who rely on guide dogs have equal access to all their benefits, including transportation to medical appointments.