The Service Employees International Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and partner organizations filed a legal petition Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calling for the agency to take action to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis for individuals with disabilities and healthcare workers. 

The groups plan to sue the agency for negligence if HHS does not enact changes.

The petition claims that the federal government failed to respond to the risk COVID-19 presents in congregate settings for people with disabilities, including nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The groups called on HHS, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Center for Clinical Standards and Quality, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to require true transparency with reporting infection and deaths, to reduce the populations in these facilities and to protect the residents and staff who remain.

“The grossly disproportionate deaths of residents and staff in these congregate settings are a direct result of HHS’ neglect and failure to protect the health and lives of residents and staff,” said Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project. “Every resident in this setting is a person with a disability, and our society continues its practice of warehousing them in crowded, understaffed buildings, with poor resources and little oversight.”

HHS’ response to the pandemic, she added, reflects a “longstanding and continuing deprioritization of people with disabilities.”

The petition was filed by SEIU and the ACLU on behalf of the American Association of People with Disabilities, Autistic Self-Advocacy Center, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, National Council on Independent Living, Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, and World Institute on Disability.