LANGUAGE BARRIERS: Hospitals Buck Civil Rights Laws
California is proving "a daunting Tower of Babel for health care providers" as its multilingual populace struggles to communicate with doctors or read documents, leading the state auditor to investigate whether agencies are complying with a 1973 law requiring the provision of interpreters and translated forms, the Los Angeles Times reports. "This is a nationwide problem," said Tom Perez, director of the Office of Civil Rights at HHS, adding, "I've been in all 10 of our offices and visited 200 advocacy groups, and this is a problem everywhere. By far, this is the most prevalent issue that has been raised." In addition to California law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids providers who receive Medicaid and Medicare funding to discriminate against foreign-speaking patients, while a separate state law requires that hospitals serving a population that is 5% bilingual provide translation services. "These laws exist on paper, but not in practice," said Jane Perkins, director of legal affairs for Los Angeles-based National Health Law Program, adding, "There are a surprising number of laws addressing it, but people just don't know about them and they aren't being enforced." The Times notes that hospitals' cost-cutting measures and staff turnover often hit translation services the hardest.
In May, a San Fernando Valley man sued Mission Community Medical Center, alleging "that he was pressed to sign papers he did not fully understand, holding him liable" for his late father's $13,000 emergency medical treatment in 1997. Pedro Perez said the hospital had incorrectly told him his father was ineligible for Medi-Cal and needed to be transferred to another facility. The lawsuit, filed by San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, is a rare instance of backlash, as individuals often do not know how to file complaints or are unaware of their rights. The audit, which began in April, is slated to finish in October (Kondo, 6/22).