/ January 20, 2009

California Pioneers Mandatory Free Language Services In Doctors’ Offices

A groundbreaking new law requires California heath plans to offer free language services for members who aren’t proficient in English. The services may be provided by phone, video or an on-site interpreter.

“We are the first state in the nation to have this kind of law,” said Cindy Ehnes, director of the California Department of Managed Health Care. “And I believe this will fundamentally change the fabric of health care in California.”

The new law was passed in 2003, but it was not fully implemented until Jan. 1. It requires health plans to provide interpretation in doctors’ offices, pharmacies and laboratories, as well as in administrative offices. Health plans must also translate official documents into languages that are spoken by a significant percentage of its members.

This law will affect millions of Californians who don’t speak fluent English.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 40 percent of Californians speak a language other than English at home. Language issues are a huge barrier to health care access in this population, Ehnes said.

To ensure compliance with the new law, Ehnes says, the Department of Managed Health Care is using “secret shoppers” — government officials posing as patients — who will call for an appointment and request language services. Plans that don’t comply may be subject to fines, she said.

Consumers are glad to hear about the new laws. “Now I feel more comfortable seeing a non-Chinese-speaking doctor,” said Kwan Choy, 81, who speaks Cantonese and lives in San Francisco. “I know there are some kinds of language-assistance programs in place.”

“This is a law that every patient who is not English-proficient should actively embrace and use to improve the quality of their health care,” Ehnes said.

Anyone having trouble accessing language services can complain to the Department of Managed Health Care, by calling (888) HMO-2219 or visiting www.hmohelp.ca.gov .

Soure: Mercury News

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