Mentally retarded get inferior care

Surgeon General: Education needed for better health care

Associated Press: Washington Dec. 6 2001

Too many doctors and dentists refuse to treat mentally retarded patients or give them inferior care, Surgeon General David Satcher said Thursday.

SATCHER URGED medical schools to prepare doctors better and said public and private health insurers must do more to pay for good care.  “People with mental retardation are stigmatized,” Satcher said. “Sometimes they are stigmatized by the professionals charged to serve them. This stigma is real, it is painful, it is pervasive and it is unfair.” More studies are needed to document the extent and causes of the problem, Satcher said, but testimony from doctors, mentally retarded patients and their families shows this is “a major weakness in the health system in this country.”

 Because the mentally retarded are three times as likely to live in poverty as the general population, they are disproportionately affected by shortcomings in state and federal health programs for the poor, Satcher said. Some doctors and dentists won’t treat Medicaid patients because the Medicaid reimbursements are too low, he said.And, he said, “Some doctors are not comfortable treating people with mental retardation.” He also faulted private insurance companies for charging exorbitant premiums for people with mental retardation. Satcher spoke during a two-day Surgeon General’s Conference on Health Disparities and Mental Retardation. Satcher said he would issue a report in a few weeks summarizing the findings.


At a news conference with Satcher, Special Olympics gold medalist Loretta Claiborne said doctors often fail to take her medical complaints seriously because she is mentally retarded. Claiborne, 48, who has finished more than two-dozen marathons, said she had trouble walking as a child, and several doctors dismissed her condition until one paid for X-rays and discovered she needed foot surgery.  “If it wasn’t for that doctor, I would probably be still at home, walking awkwardly,” she said. She said as an adult she twice suffered tumors that were initially missed by doctors until she pressed for more tests.   “I still today have to fight” for medical care, she said.

Another conference participant, Jackie Golden, said she became an advocate for the mentally retarded because of years of dealing with misdiagnoses, insensitive doctors and frustrating Medicaid rules while caring for two children with disabilities.  Golden said she was forced to send her son Joshua, who has Angelman Syndrome, to live in a pediatric hospital at age 8 because Medicaid wouldn’t pay for his medicine, therapy and supplies if she cared for him at home.      Her son, now 20, moved back into his Baltimore home four years ago only because his family moved out and had themselves licensed as a health care provider, which essentially established their home as a full-time health care facility for