Mercy Suburban Hospital in East Norriton has agreed to pay $25,000 to settle the complaint of an HIV-positive woman who allegedly was denied medical treatment due to her serostatus.

In July 2013, a bariatric surgeon at the hospital allegedly refused to assess the woman for weight-loss surgery. The woman had been referred to Mercy Suburban by her primary-care physician. 

A nurse at Mercy Suburban allegedly told the woman she couldn’t have the surgery due to her HIV-positive status.

In January 2014, the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania sent a demand letter to the hospital, explaining its legal obligations to provide health care in a non-biased manner. The law project was concerned the hospital violated the state Human Relations Act, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The demand letter was unavailing, so the agency filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to an agreement announced this week, the woman will receive $20,000 from Mercy Suburban, and the hospital will pay a $5,000 civil penalty.

“In addition, Mercy has agreed to implement a nondiscrimination policy, advertise that policy and adequately train employees and contractors regarding the policy,” the DOJ stated in a press release. “The settled civil claims are allegations only. There has been no determination of civil liability, and Mercy denies any such liability.” 

The HIV/AIDS-inclusive antibias policy must be “conspicuously posted” in the reception area of the bariatric surgeon’s office, according to the settlement. 

Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the law project, expressed satisfaction with the settlement.

“A settlement of this nature reinforces the work we do, which is to remind the population in general that people with HIV have the same rights as everyone else, including a right to health care,” Goldfein said. 

Although the woman was referred to another hospital for the surgery, she hasn’t received it. 

“Ultimately, for reasons not related to her HIV, she was found to be not a good candidate for the surgery,” Goldfein said. “Our complaint was based on her allegation that she wasn’t assessed for the surgery. Had they assessed her and said she’s not an appropriate candidate, so be it. They just said out of hand, ‘We’re not doing it.’”

Goldfein added: “We’re not ever arguing someone’s clinical decisions. All we’re saying is that, as a person with HIV, she’s entitled to an assessment of her appropriateness for surgery like any other patient seeking that surgery.” 

Mercy Suburban issued this statement about the matter:

“Mercy Health System is dedicated to fostering a welcoming, compassionate environment for each and every patient. While we deny any wrongdoing in this case, we are taking the matter seriously and expanded our long-standing anti-discrimination policy to explicitly include persons with HIV. We will ensure our colleagues are well-versed in — and committed to — upholding these standards. Our highest priority is the safety of our patients, and we are committed to ensuring each care plan takes into consideration pre-existing conditions.”

Adrian M. Lowe, a staff attorney at the law project, assisted with the case.

“In the last four years, most of the discrimination cases we’ve heard about are in the health-care context,” Lowe told PGN. “Ninety-nine percent of health-care providers are getting it right. But it’s really disheartening when an industry that should know better gets it wrong.”