Cancer Survivor Sues HealthPartners for Discrimination

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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

minorities.”

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.

“HealthPartners

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

appropriately.”

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

rare.

“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,”

said Leyderman.

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

example.

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.

Discrimination

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.

“A lot

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.

“You

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.

“In the

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,”

said Jeffers.