Language Barriers in California Health Care

Last week the Health Report wrote about how the state’s annual Medi-Cal renewal forms are so complicated that they may cause tens of thousands of people to lose coverage. Among the problems is that the forms are only available in English and Spanish, reported Claudia Boyd-Barrett.

More than 15 percent of California residents speak a language other than English or Spanish at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.

A quarter of the state’s population is now enrolled in Medi-Cal, California’s low-income health program. That means over a million people may not be able to read their renewal forms, much less fill them out.

Despite state and federal laws that require health insurers, including Medi-Cal, to provide written materials in the main languages spoken by their members, advocates say this problem is still far too common.

“Language barriers in the health-care context result in life and death consequences for limited-English proficient patients,” Claudia Menjivar, a Loyola Public Interest fellow at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, said in an email message. “I’m not just referring to a patient’s ability to communicate effectively with their doctors and health-care providers, although that’s critical too.

“I’m referring to how prescription instructions that are not translated result in misuse of prescribed medicine. Or how language barriers discourage LEP patients from seeking primary and preventative care, resulting in increased visits to the emergency room when an LEP patient’s condition worsens.”

There are several groups trying to improve language access in health care, but Menjivar said she still hears from people statewide who are unable to get the care they need due to language barriers.

“Public awareness of language access as a civil rights issue is undoubtedly on the rise, and we are moving in the right direction,” she said. “However, due to the recession and continued budget deficits, language access and the services necessary to ensure meaningful access (e.g. interpreters) are seen as an afterthought as opposed to a priority.”

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