- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

D.C. officials are making it easier for people who don’t speak English to access health care programs through a project that will provide interpreters and language services.

“It’s very important,” said Kenneth L. Saunders, director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights. “If individuals need to avail themselves of health services and English is a barrier, then we should remove that barrier.”

The measures are mandated by the D.C. Language Access Act, proposed by D.C. City Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, and signed into law by Mayor Anthony A. Williams last year.

The act requires city agencies to translate documents and provide telephone interpretations for residents who do not speak or read English well. Mr. Saunders said so far 14 city agencies are in compliance with the act and nine more are scheduled to be in compliance by the end of fiscal 2006.

To comply with the act, the District’s Medical Assistance Administration (MAA) has mailed to each of the city’s 142,000 Medicaid recipients cards that identify the holder’s specific language needs, as well as literature informing them of their rights to have important letters and notices translated into their primary language and be provided with a free-of-charge interpreter.

Costs for creating the cards, mailing them and placing posters in health care offices will reach about $120,000, said Robert Maruca, senior deputy director of the MAA.

About 90,000 of the District’s Medicaid recipients belong to managed-care organizations such as Amerigroup Corp. and Charter, which will foot the bill for interpretive services provided to their clients. The MAA will pay for services provided to the remaining 52,000 Medicaid recipients on an “as-needed basis,” Mr. Maruca said.

The “I Speak” cards — available in Ethiopian Amharic, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese — feature hot line numbers to call if there are problems accessing services because of language barriers.

“We obviously have a large number of clients who speak those languages,” Mr. Maruca said. “It’s necessary that they be fairly fluent so they can tell the physician what their need is, so they need an interpreter for those services.”

D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. Gregg A. Pane said the measures are necessary to address the dangers of diseases carried by immigrants.

“Providing greater access to health care for persons with limited English proficiency is an important step in reducing health disparities,” Dr. Pane said.

For example, 33 percent of the 81 active cases of tuberculosis reported in the District in 2004 were carried by foreign-born residents. Mr. Maruca said the high incidences of heart disease and diabetes in the District also are related to residents’ limited ability to speak English.

“Individuals such as African-Americans and some other ethnicity groups generally have a higher percentage of certain diseases than others do,” Mr. Maruca said. “Part of that is [because] they don’t understand the instructions from the physicians and aren’t able to express their needs to the physicians.”

The D.C. metro area is the fifth most-common destination for immigrants arriving in the United States, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. U.S. Census figures show about 20,000 D.C. residents are limited in English proficiency.

According to a July report by the federal Office of the Inspector General, 46 states plus the District currently accept simply a signed declaration by those seeking Medicaid as proof of U.S. citizenship.

Mr. Maruca said immigration status, legal or otherwise, would not factor into the program to provide the new language materials.

“This has nothing to do with eligibility,” he said. “Just having this card doesn’t give you any right to services. You have to show you’re in the Medicaid system.”

Officials with the District’s Income Maintenance Agency in the Department of Health and Human Services are responsible for determining Medicaid eligibility in the city but did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

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