Interpreter Requirements Could Mean Less Access to Care for Non-English Speakers, Doctors Groups Say
One hundred physician and dentists' groups have sent letters to the Bush administration calling for an "immediate moratorium" on enforcement of requirements that care providers supply interpreters for non-English-speaking patients, PBS' "Healthweek" reports. More than six million U.S. residents speak little or no English, and a recent survey found that after cost, language was the most frequently cited barrier to adequate health care. The Clinton administration said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which prohibits groups and individuals receiving federal funds from discriminating based on national origin -- means that non-English-speaking people who are seeing providers that receive federal funds -- such as Medicare or Medicaid -- must have access to interpreters. However, few providers comply with the law. Last year, the Clinton administration issued guidelines "spelling out" how care providers should comply with the law, suggesting that they use bilingual staff, hire professional interpreters, rely on trained volunteers and use telephone interpreter services. Using the patient's family or friends as interpreters is not permitted.
Although the provider groups say they agree with the idea behind the law, they say that because doctors often cover the cost of interpreter services, the result could be "even less access to care" for non-English speaking people. "[N]ot many physicians are going" to cover costs of $80 to $250 for a translator when they only receive about $38 per Medicare beneficiary, Dr. Richard Corlin of the American Medical Association said. Corlin called the interpreter requirement "counter-productive" and "foolish," adding that it should be changed. But Mara Youdelman, an attorney with the National Health Law Program, an advocacy group for immigrants and people with low incomes, said, "Patients should not be turned away from care because they're not able to provide a translator. These people need care." The supporters of the guidelines say doctors should ask states to help pay for translation services or use volunteers. Corlin added that the government should be "more open" to using family members as interpreters because they are "very, very valuable" and do not require payment (Attkisson, "Healthweek," PBS, 6/8).