Most of the time I’m pretty good about standing up for my rights as a service dog handler. Occasionally, I allow myself to get bullied. This has been one of those times. But now I’m mad, and I’m ready to take some action.
When I lived in California, for about fifteen years I received all of my healthcare through the Kaiser Permanente system, first via my job, and then through spousal benefits from my wife Sabrina’s employer. What this meant was that healthcare was easy, in a lot of ways. Whenever I needed a new doctor, he or she could be found under one proverbial roof. I knew the system, everybody was working together, and it made managing my sometimes very complex medical situation relatively painless.
So when we moved to Las Cruces in late January of this year, one of my biggest anxieties was establishing a new network of providers. Sabrina no longer had employee healthcare, so she had a separate plan. I had been switched to Medicare, with Blue Cross/Blue Shield as supplemental. I had only a thirty-day supply of medications. I knew I had to find, immediately, a neurologist for my hypokalemic periodic paralysis disorder, a psychiatrist for my bipolar disorder, and a primary care physician to fill in for anything else that might arise. The providers needed to be close by (I can’t drive, so Sabrina has to provide all of my transportation), they had to accept both of my insurance plans, and they needed to be accepting new patients. The list wasn’t very long.
I felt lucky when I found Epoch Integrated Health Services in downtown Las Cruces, and was given an appointment with psychiatrist Dr. Beale without too much waiting time. Until I showed up for the appointment, that is. The first day, I waited two hours without being seen, and had to leave because I had another appointment, and had to reschedule. When I returned for my second appointment, I waited another hour and a half, and finally was called into his office. He took one look at me and said, “Oh. You can’t bring that dog in here.”
I thought he was kidding. Honestly, I thought it was a joke. I was standing there with Ripley in her service vest, and couldn’t believe that a doctor at a medical clinic was telling me I couldn’t bring my service animal into the room. Then Ripley shook, and he said, “See, that’s what they do. They shake. I’m allergic. Get her out of here.”
Prior to seeing Dr. Beale, I had gone through intake with a counselor, Janis Burkhardt. She had said nothing to me about Ripley, made no indication that this would be an issue. What could I do? I needed those prescriptions for my medications. I brought Ripley to the waiting room and gave her leash to Sabrina, then returned for my appointment. (Thank god Sabrina was there. I don’t know what I would have been expected to do had I come to the appointment alone.)
I continued to see Beale over the next several months. Each time, I left Ripley in the waiting room. At no time was I offered an alternative. I never saw another psychiatrist at the clinic, and did not believe there was one. At one of my sessions with Beale, he asked me what my current “challenges” were. I told him I was in the process of training a new service dog. He then told me he did not believe animals should be in service to humans, that it was like slavery; he felt they should be free beings. He went on for some time about this “philosophy” of his. I was seething inside, but again, I said nothing.
Last month, I received a letter from Janis Burkhardt at Epoch stating that I had failed to have my quarterly treatment plan update, and that if I did not schedule one, I could no longer receive services at the clinic. The letter noted they would be happy to refer me to another provider, in that case. When I read the letter, I suddenly had some hope – maybe there was someone else? So I scheduled the appointment with Burkhardt, determined to talk to her about the service dog issue with Beale.
When I arrived at the clinic, Burkhardt called me back to her office. As I stepped in, she said, “Oh. Sorry. I’m allergic to dogs. You’ll have to leave the dog in the waiting room. With your friend.” (On another note: Sabrina has been referred to as “my friend” on multiple occasions at the clinic, despite the fact that she is listed as my wife, is my emergency contact, and accompanies me to every appointment.) I was now furious. I had brought Rocky, my new service dog, that day. I again was forced to leave her with Sabrina in order to go to my appointment. I asked Burkhardt why she had done her first interview with me with my service dog in the room. She said, “Oh, sometimes I let it slide, but then I have to pay the consequences.”
I told her that Beale would not see me with my service dog, and that I must have both an intake counselor and a psychiatrist who would see me with my service dog. I told her it was illegal according to the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, to deny me this right.
She took out some paper, began to write. “Oh, OK then. I’ll ask my supervisor. Let’s see, I think Dr. X likes dogs. He always pets them. But he’s not here very often. And maybe Carol. She likes dogs, too.” I couldn’t believe it. Likes dogs? As if we were talking about a pet parade or something? Then she said, “What is your disability?” It is against the law to ask a person’s disability. Again, disbelief. And then, the clincher: “What was that thing you said again? The ADH something?” I said, “Excuse me?” She said, “You know, you said there was some AD something?” And I said, “You mean the ADA? The Americans With Disabilities Act?” She said, “Oh, yes. That’s what you said.”
After my appointment with her, she took me to the waiting room, where I was able once again to be reunited with my service dog, and I was given future appointments with a different counselor and a nurse practitioner for meds, both of whom, supposedly, do not have dog allergies.
But obviously, this is systemic. Here is a healthcare organization, that has offices in Albuquerque, Alamogordo, Deming, Santa Teresa, and Roswell, with the corporate headquarters in Las Cruces. Many of the patients are on Medicare, and are either elderly or lower income. The clinic I have been going to specializes in behavioral healthcare and also in addiction and recovery. I know there are many people coming here who are far less likely than me to stand up for themselves. And it took me some time.
From the beginning, I should have been offered options. If your clinic’s main psychiatrist AND one of your intake counselors are allergic to dogs, then on the phone, someone should be asking each client if they have a service dog, and making appointments accordingly. No client should ever be separated from his or her service dog. It’s illegal.
(For a full text of the ADA guidelines on Service Dogs, go here.)