Immigrants Gain Right to Medical Interpreters
New America Media, News Report, Viji Sundaram Posted: Jan 26, 2009
Editor's Note: A new regulation requires commercial health and dental insurers to provide interpreters to patients who need them, lessening the likelihood of medical mistakes and treatment delays, reports NAM Health Editor Viji Sundaram.
SAN FRANCISCO -- About two years ago, the staff of a Los Angeles hospital tied both hands of a 97-year-old South Korean immigrant to the bed frame after the man raised his voice in frustration when no one could understand what he was trying to say in his native language.
In another instance, Myung Hee Kim, a 71-year-old South Korean immigrant who spoke no English and was admitted to a hospital in Southern California for diabetes-related complications, was administered pain relievers to her right shoulder when she complained of pain in her left shoulder.
Such medical mistakes are now less likely to happen in California, thanks to a new regulation that requires commercial health and dental insurers to provide translators, if not in person, at least by telephone or video conferencing, said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, one of a number of non-profits that helped California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN), push the legislation through.
"This can make a big difference in the quality of health care our communities receive," said Marty Martinez, policy director at CPEHN, which sponsored the legislation.
The regulation, the first of its kind in the nation, ensures that "everybody who has insurance gets an interpreter," said CPEHN's Executive Director Ellen Wu. Doctors' orders "will now have to be translated into any language that is spoken."
An estimated 7 million Californians with limited English proficiency, about half of them enrolled in Health Maintenance Organizations, are expected to benefit from the law.
A provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires all hospitals that receive federal funding to provide interpreters, a law that is often breached.
CPEHN sponsored SB 853, the Health Care Language Assistance Act, in 2003, with co-sponsorship from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
It was signed into law by former Gov. Gray Davis that same year. But for years after that, it faced a myriad of hurdles from health plan opponents and administrative turnovers resulting from the 2003 gubernatorial recall. The implementation finally began Jan. 1, 2009.
The need to have such a law became more pressing as California turned more diverse. More than 40 percent of Californians do not speak English at home, and an estimated 7 million have limited English proficiency, according to U.S. Census data.
For some populations, such as Vietnamese and Korean Americans, more than 60 percent don't speak English well and as a result they, as well as other individuals with limited English skills, face language and cultural barriers when seeking health care.
Immigrant patients have to take an English-speaking family member with them when they go to hospital, which is not always possible. And when they do, the family interpreter often cannot understand medical jargon, resulting in miscommunication.
Some hospitals, such as Kaiser Permanente, have for years been hiring people with second-language skills.
Under the new regulation, HMOs and medical providers will have to provide interpreters either in person or via telephone or video conferencing.
And just what language the interpreters will have to know will depend on "how much the language penetrates that particular area," said Wright. "In Fresno, for instance, HMOs and medical providers will have to provide interpreters who speak Hmong."
Martinez noted that even though the Health Care Language Access Act is a California law, there could more than likely be a "spillover effect" to other states.
"Hopefully, this can serve as a model," he said.
Below is a list of resources CPEHN has compiled for ethnic communities to better navigate the health care system:
"I Speak" Cards, available in 13 languages, was developed by PALS for Health to enable a patient to ask for an interpreter and help health care staff immediately identify the language spoken by the patient.
HMO Help Center: 1-888-466-2219, call if you need help working with your health plan to get the services you need.
Sample Notice of Language Assistance, created by DMHC, outlines patients' new rights to language services in 12 languages.
HEADLINE DMHC's Language Assistance Webpage, compiles information on SB 853, frequently asked questions, and sample health plan notices.
Office of the Patient Advocate's website has information to help you navigate the health care system including their guide on How to Use Your Health Plan.
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