- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The second phase of a California state law requiring that health insurers provide language interpreters and translated materials at no charge took effect last week; millions of state residents with limited English skills benefit from the law.

The unprecedented law, which kicked off Jan. 1 by requiring insurance companies to provide interpreters for patients covered under health maintenance organization (HMO) plans, was extended Wednesday to state residents with preferred provider organizations (PPO) and other medical insurance plans.

California’s Managed Health Care Department estimates that one-third of the state’s 21 million HMO and PPO members are eligible for the language program.

“In today’s complex medical world, it is crucial to improve the communications between patients and doctors,” said Marty Martinez, policy director for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. “California is making history through the implementation of this language access law, which will end the unnecessary distress and confusion many” limited English speakers experience.

The U.S. Census Bureau says 43 percent of California residents don’t speak English at home, a proportion far higher than in any other state. Hispanics account for 19 percent of total HMO enrollment, followed by Asians with 12 percent, blacks with 7 percent and American Indians and others at 3 percent.

A recent study found that more than 25 percent of limited-English-speaking patients who needed, but didn’t get, interpreter services could not understand their medication instructions.

Laura Reno, regulatory compliance director for Anthem Blue Cross, praised the law.

“We started notifying the contracted physicians, medical groups and hospitals who participate in our health plans late last year in preparation” for the law, she said. “We are a company that champions diversity, and having such a capability allows us to simplify the connection between health care and value for our members.”

Public health

A government-run health insurance plan created to compete with private insurers, as pushed by President Obama, would save the average family almost $200 a month, says a Virginia health care consulting firm.

A Lewin Group report released Monday shows that if Medicare payment levels are used in a “public plan” option, premiums would be up to 30 percent less than premiums for comparable private coverage.

On average, the monthly premium in a public plan for a typical benefits package would be $761 per family, compared with an average of $970 per family in the private market for the same coverage, the report says.

If eligibility is limited to just employers with small businesses, individuals and the self-employed — as the president has proposed — public plan enrollment would reach 42.9 million people. The number of people with private coverage would fall by 32 million people.

Medicare premiums would be lower than private premiums because of the exceptional leverage Medicare has with providers, the report says. Medicare pays hospitals about 30 percent less than private insurers pay for the same service, and physician payments are about 20 percent less than under private coverage.

Also, because Medicare has no allowance for insurer profits or broker/agent commissions, administrative costs are about one-third of those in private health plans.

Kennedy appointment

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) last week appointed Dr. Charles Kennedy, vice president for health information technology at WellPoint Inc., to the Health Information Technology Policy Committee, a new federal advisory body.

The committee will make recommendations on creating a policy framework for the development and adoption of a nationwide health information technology infrastructure, including standards for the exchange of patient medical information.

The committee was established under terms in the $787 billion economic stimulus package Congress passed last month. The law directed the GAO’s comptroller general to appoint 13 members to the committee for terms of three years.

“I welcome the opportunity to help shape the nation’s health [information technology] infrastructure,” Dr. Kennedy said. “From global competitiveness to improving the health of the individual, I can think of no other activity more important than the deployment of health IT.”

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, helps meet legislators’ needs for timely and reliable information on a wide range of government activities.

Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.