Cancer Survivor Sues HealthPartners for Discrimination
Wednesday, April 24 2013
Written by by Jamie Keith,
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cancer_survivor_sues.jpg 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.

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