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HHS Unveils Updated Language Access Plan for Health Equity

The Updated Language Access Plan builds on previous legal provisions prohibiting discrimination and requiring adequate language supports for patients.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is cracking down on language access and patient rights to medical interpreters as a part of agency efforts to improve health equity.

The HHS Language Access Plan aims to bust language barriers and support patients with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) by going beyond protections afforded in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. These laws have historically worked together to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, and disability, among other things.

The 2023 HHS Language Access Plan builds on them by way of the Language Access Steering Committee, which is charged with helping individual divisions under HHS create their own language access plans for different programs and reporting on progress annually.

“It is 2023 and the fact that kids still have the same experience I had of translating complex medical information for my parents is unacceptable. Children, family members, and others should not be held responsible for translating complicated and emotional information in order for their loved one to access needed care,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement announcing the Language Access Plan.

“Language should never be a barrier to accessing health care and human services. With our updated Plan, we’re representing our unwavering commitment to equity and inclusivity across HHS.”

Currently, 68 million people in the United States speak a language other than English at home, and 8.2 percent speak English less than very well, meeting the HHS standard for LEP. Yet, language access is an integral part of the healthcare experience. When there is language discordance, meaning a patient and provider do not speak the same language, the patient-provider relationship falters.

“If healthcare providers can’t communicate clearly with their patients, how can they establish a relationship of trust, and how can patients appreciate the severity of what’s happening to them, or understand what’s needed to make them better?” Melanie Fontes Rainer, the director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, wrote in an introduction of the updated plan.

Language concordance is the ideal for a good patient-provider relationship, but it is not always possible. Healthcare organizations should set up mechanisms for access to medical interpreters to ensure all patients can engage adequately in care.

The HHS Language Access Plan sets out to make sure of that by requiring all recipients of HHS dollars to adhere to the above-mentioned legal statutes protecting from discrimination on the bases of race, color, national origin, and disability, all of which may influence LEP or need for American Sign Language interpreters.

The Plan is the product of the Language Access Steering Committee, which HHS indicated will facilitate much of the push for better language access across divisions within HHS.

The Steering Committee is responsible for updating the HHS language access policies, procedures, and strategy; developing and maintaining an accurate record of HHS efforts to assess and improve language services; and annually reporting to the HHS secretary the progress each HHS division has made in implementing the Language Access Plan.

The Steering Committee will work with HHS agencies to develop and track implementation methods for measuring improvements in language access in individual programs. It will also make sure agencies are collecting data about these efforts. Finally, the Steering Committee will oversee creating an annual report to track whether agencies are adhering to the Language Access Plan and make recommendations for better adherence.

HHS stressed that the new Language Access Plan is representative of the agency’s overall mission to support health equity.

“The ability to communicate is critical to accessing health and human services and goes beyond the language you speak. Today’s new, strengthened Language Access Plan reaffirms our dedication to breaking down barriers across HHS, promoting inclusivity of communication and making services accessible to everyone, and upholding the principles of equity and justice,” Fontes Rainer said in an HHS press release.

“We stand by our commitment to enforcing the civil rights of every individual in this country, regardless of their language or disability.”

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