The insurance and healthcare industry have two options:
1) brace for the explosion in website accessibility lawsuits and risk being sued, or 2) sidestep the onslaught and create competitive advantage by making their websites accessible to people with disabilities.
- A patient who is blind can’t search their insurance company’s website for healthcare providers because the website doesn’t work with their screen reader software.
- A customer who is deaf and has low vision can’t request a quote on an insurance broker’s website because the Request a Quote form is not accessible with their Braille device.
- A patient with paraplegia who can’t use a mouse can’t book an appointment on their healthcare provider’s website, because it isn’t compatible with keyboard-only and voice-activated directions.
In 2019, the age of inclusion, access to information is not a reality for people with disabilities. And for this group, access to information regarding insurance and healthcare in particular is an even greater need.
As part of this report, we randomly selected 5 insurance broker websites to examine their level of accessibility.
ON ALL FIVE insurance broker websites, issues were detected that would impede or make it very difficult for someone with a disability to navigate the website.
The image below of one of the randomly selected insurance broker websites demonstrates the typical errors that were found on all 5 sites.
The accessibility errors on the website shown above include: 1) It is not possible to skip the main menu and jump to content. 2) Sub-menus only open using a mouse, not a keyboard. 3) No controls to pause the image slideshow. 4) Images are not aptly described for screen reader users.
It’s not surprising that hospitals, clinics, health insurance as well as related providers such as drug stores and optical stores are finding themselves in legal hot water, as disability advocates try to force change via demand letters and the courts.
How Website Accessibility Laws Apply in Healthcare and Insurance
There are almost 60 million Americans (20% of the population) who have a disability.
Providers don’t realize that by law they are required to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities.
Under Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, healthcare organizations are required to make their information and communications technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. This includes websites, web applications, software, and hardware.
In addition, many healthcare organizations must also comply with non-discrimination rules under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. (Source: Level Access)
Some have argued that websites are not public places of accommodation and therefore not subject to the ADA.
However, the Department of Justice reaffirmed its stance on website accessibility: that websites are public places of accommodation and as such, the ADA applies to websites.
And many courts have ruled in favour of making websites accessible for people with disabilities.
It’s safe to say: the law is on the side of people with disabilities.
The Risks of Not Complying with Website Accessibility Laws Are Not Worth It
Website accessibility lawsuits have risen by more than 3600% since 2015, with both large and small corporations being sued.
Department of Justice fines for ADA non-compliance with these laws range from $75,000 for a first offence to $150,000 for a second offence.
And ADA lawsuits cost tens of thousands to millions of dollars, including the costs to defend litigation, payment of the plaintiff’s legal fees, the cost to fix and maintain the website, plus put accessibility protocols in place.
WellPoint Inc, now Anthem Insurance Companies Inc, was sued by 2 blind plaintiffs, Sam Chen and Steven Mendelsohn of California, for failing to make its website accessible.
In a public settlement, Wellpoint agreed to make its websites conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA, a set of accessibility standards recognized worldwide.
It’s noteworthy that the terms of the settlement were more stringent and costly than it would have been for Wellpoint to make their website accessible from the get-go.
In addition, last year, in a three month period, in only two states, namely Florida and New York, in one single industry: healthcare, there were 30 ADA website accessibility lawsuits filed against healthcare businesses.
The businesses that were sued include radiology clinics, senior care centers, dental offices, pediatric offices, small hospitals, diagnostic centers, urgent care clinics and more.
Attorney in Texas, Omar Weaver Rosales, has sent demand letters to multiple healthcare organizations, stating:
Since your website does not comply with Federal law, you must immediately self-report to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and forfeit any Federal funds received [from Medicaid or Medicare] until you have completed recertification.”
So not only do providers risk an actual lawsuit, they also risk loss of funding, contracts and assistance from government organizations.
In turn, that means loss of visitors and potential customers with and without disabilities.
The internet has become too much of an essential part of everyday life for all people.
So this is not an issue that is going away, and with each year that passes, website accessibility lawsuits will continue to climb exponentially.
Providers that delay addressing this issue by taking steps to make their websites accessible, are only delaying the inevitable while leaving themselves vulnerable to ADA claims and unnecessary liability in the process.
So how can a provider make their website accessible?
Beware of “Google Advice” on How To Make Your Website Accessible
A Google Search for “how to make my website accessible” will return articles with lists and tips on how to improve a website’s accessibility. These lists suggest things like:
- Adding descriptive text to images on the website
- Adding captions to videos
- Properly using headings in content
- Ensuring the colours you choose have a high contrast
- Adopting an Accessibility Policy
- Adding an accessibility plugin or widget to your site
These suggestions are a good start, but more is needed.
Making a few tweaks is not enough to produce a website that is truly usable to people with disabilities and therefore less vulnerable to a discrimination claim.
And businesses should most certainly beware of free or cheap plugins and widgets that claim to offer ADA or WCAG compliance.
According to the guide, “Outsourcing Web Development: A Guide to Hiring Contractors to Develop Accessible Websites and Web Content” produced by the Global Alliance for Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES) in conjunction with the Government of Ontario:
Working with a company that has specific knowledge and training in WCAG guidelines and Accessibility laws is a necessary part in achieving an accessible website.
The GAATES guide, produced to help Ontario organizations take the necessary steps before the January 2021 deadline and avoid hefty fines of up to $100,000 per day, states:
Regardless of the size or complexity of a web project, developing websites that meet the AODA’s website accessibility standards [WCAG 2.0 AA] requires very specific expertise which many developers are still learning – this is true whether the developers are on staff or third parties with whom you contract.
And an examination of website accessibility public settlement agreements in the USA also reflects that a specialized level of expertise is required for accessible websites.
But the initial setup of an accessible website is just the first step.
There also needs to be an ongoing effort to maintain accessibility. This includes continued monitoring and an overall shift in the way a website is managed with accessibility being thoroughly considered throughout all website updates and modifications.
An organization’s goal should be to ensure that their website 1) significantly complies with WCAG 2 AA standards, and 2) will continue to be usable by people who are disabled in the long-run.
Only by doing so, will healthcare and insurance providers significantly reduce their exposure to ADA claims while building goodwill with the people who need their services the most:
People with disabilities.
About Mitch Newman
Mitch Newman has an extensive background in medical products, health products, insurance and law. He is a recipient of the State of Florida Meritorious Service Award, worked on the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic (1988) and appeared as an expert on HIV on NBC Nightly News and Nightline. He is a Co-Author of A Synopsis and Analysis of the 1993 Amendments to the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law, (November 1993) and Permanent Total Disability Defined by Social Security Law: The Blind Leading the Blind, (April 1995), and he is a licensed Life and Health Agent specializing in niche health insurance products.