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Language Access in Health Care

Issue Highlights: 

Language Access in Health Care

Limited English proficient individuals, or individuals who do not speak English well enough to communicate effectively in a health setting, have a right to free interpretation and translation services at hospitals, community health centers, clinics, and Medicaid and other public benefits offices. 

Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act guarantees meaningful access to all individuals seeking services from any federally-funded entity, including hospitals, clinics, and public health insurance offices, like HRA and local districts of social service – regardless of the language the individual speaks, the individual’s religion, dress, or country of origin.

In practice, this means that hospitals, community health centers, clinics, and government agencies like Medicaid must provide free interpretation and translation services to any limited-English-proficient individual seeking services.  Health care providers and Medicaid workers are also prohibited from discriminating against individuals based on their accent, the way they look, or what they are wearing.

In 2006, the New York State Department of Health also implemented a language access regulation that requires hospitals to develop Language Assistance Programs, designate a Language Assistance Coordinator, post signage informing consumers about the availability of free language assistance services, and avoid using family members as interpreters. Executive Orders issued by Mayor Bloomberg (in 2008) and Governor Cuomo (in 2011) also require both city and state agencies to develop and implement language access plans. Another important language access victory is SafeRx, included in the Governor’s 2013 Budget, which requires that chain and mail order pharmacies statewide provide comprehensive translation and interpretation services for limited English proficient New Yorkers.

Despite the protections guaranteed by New York City and State, ensuring language access in all health care settings continues to be a challenge.

The New York Immigration Coalition coordinates and supports advocacy campaigns to improve limited-English-proficient individuals’ access to health care and health insurance.  The NYIC continues this work in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by advocating that the New York State of Health health benefit marketplace website and notices are issued in multiple languages. Please contact the NYIC to get involved, and let us know if you or someone you know has experienced difficulty or delay in accessing health services because of a language barrier. 



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