Roger Jeffers (Sisseton Sioux), a 50-year-old bladder cancer survivor, says that he was the victim of racial discrimination while seeking treatment for post-chemotherapy-related health complications at HealthPartners St. Paul Clinic this fall.
“Nobody was taking that I was there and I had bladder cancer. They treated me as if I came in off the street and I was some guy looking for pills,” said Jeffers of HealthPartners staff.
The issue began when Jeffers got neuropathy, a nerve-damage disorder which causes pain and numbness in hands and feet. He requested refills of his Percocet prescription to manage the neuropathy pain from his primary care physician, Dr. Shehbana Mahmood.
“She did give me some pain medication, but nothing ever happened with my feet, nothing changed, so I went back to see her. That’s when she started thinking that I was there for one reason [drugs] and that’s all,” said Jeffers.
At that point, Jeffers says that Dr. Mahmood verbally instructed him to take twice the amount of Percocet he was currently taking to manage his pain. However, this was not communicated to other HealthPartners staff or documented, so Jeffers was unable to refill his prescription, and encountered increased suspicion from pharmacists and nurses at the clinic. Jeffers alleges that Dr. Mahmood’s personal nurse told him that they could tell he was an addict and instructed him to find health care somewhere else, despite the fact that Jeffers has no history of alcohol or drug abuse.
“It’s not like I was going in there out of the blue – I’d been on
Percocet since my surgery ten months before. It’s not like I was walking
in and saying, ‘Oh, here, I really want these Percocets.’ It’s a
medicine to me,” said Jeffers.
Unfortunately, Jeffers’s experience is
hardly unique. According to a review of national pain medicine studies
published by the American Academy of Pain Medicine in 2003, “despite
guidelines, educational interventions, and standards aimed at optimizing
pain management, the literature continues to report the undertreatment
of pain, particularly among patients who are racial and ethnic
Although the studies did not include statistics
specifically regarding Native American populations, “compared with
non-minority patients, racial and ethnic minority patients in all
settings reported less pain relief and were less likely to be adequately
assessed for pain than non-minority patients.”
Although unable to
comment specifically about Jeffers’s case due to patient privacy issues,
Senior Manager of Employee Communications Ashley Burt said that
HealthPartners “encourage[s] any of our patients to contact the clinic
or our organization with concerns about care or service.”
On behalf of HealthPartners, Burt also recognized the importance of equity and anti-discrimination policies and practices.
is a leader in providing culturally competent care and service. We
recognize the importance of creating an inclusive environment,” said
Burt. “All complaints are investigated promptly by our Director of
Diversity and Inclusion and the clinic leader and dealt with
Since leaving HealthPartners, Jeffers has decided to
take legal action against the organization. Minnesota civil rights and
discrimination lawyer Zorislav R. Leyderman has agreed to represent
Jeffers and take on his case.
“In order to prove that you have a
discrimination case, you have to show that you were treated differently
from other people, and you also have to show that the reason for this
treatment isn’t because you’re tall or you’re short or because someone
didn’t like you, but it’s because of one of these protected clauses,”
Leyderman said, outlining that protected clauses include race, age,
gender, sexual orientation, and ability.
Once a case is established,
the plaintiff has to provide evidence that he or she was discriminated
against. However, instances of direct evidence of discrimination are
“We don’t live in the sixties anymore, so people don’t
generally go around and use racial slurs and other discriminatory words
that you can take as direct evidence to prove that you have a case,”
Instead, attorneys look for circumstantial evidence
by comparing treatment of white clients in a certain establishment with
treatment of non-white clients.
“If you’re a minority and you’re
being treated in a way that you feel is unfair or inappropriate, you can
prove discrimination by comparing yourself to non-minority workers in
the same place,” said Leyderman, using an employment setting as an
In lieu of direct evidence of discrimination, plaintiffs
can also prove they were discriminated against by highlighting the
absurd or inexplicable nature of their mistreatment.
“You can show
that what happened to you was so unusual and so out of line that the
only explanation for it could be discrimination,” said Leyderman.
cases can take between six months and several years to reach a
resolution. Ultimately, there are several different outcomes a victim of
discrimination can request from the organizations they sue.
of people just want someone to hear them out. They want someone to
notice what happened to them and that it was wrong,” said Leyderman of
his clients. “Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of ways to do that in
our society without asking someone to pay you, and that draws a lot of
attention internally and causes a lot of changes to happen.”
However, Leyderman also says that there are options outside of just monetary compensation.
can ask for an agency to change its policies or you can ask for a
certain agency to provide better training for its employees to make sure
that these things don’t happen in the future,” he said.
In the end,
Jeffers wants to stand up for his rights and bring awareness about
issues of health care discrimination to a broader audience.
health field, Native Americans aren’t treated right. We have terrible
health care. I’m not looking for anything, just for maybe another Native
guy to say, ‘Hey, they treat me like this, too.’ I’m a human being just
like you are. I didn’t get cancer so I could have pain medication,”