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HHS Announces Initiatives to Address Language Barriers in Care Access

Through several language service initiatives, HHS aims to reduce language barriers across department programs.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced several commitments to ease language barriers preventing care access.

“We know that people with limited English proficiency (LEP) too often face discrimination when seeking healthcare and human services,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, said in a public statement. “The risk of misinformation, the wrong type of care, or foregoing care altogether is high when language barriers persist. We’re putting policy into action to eliminate barriers to equitable care and leave no one behind.”

As a first step, HHS announced it will relaunch its Language Access Steering Committee (Steering Committee) to enhance communication with LEP patients. Alongside the Steering Committee, HHS will require all agencies to update their language access plans.

In concert with the committee relaunch, the HHS Office of Minority Health (OMH) announced it will distribute more than $4 million in grants to 11 organizations for an initiative called Promoting Equitable Access to Language Services in Health and Human Services.

Through the three-year initiative, organizations will develop and test methods for informing patients with LEP about accessibility to language services in healthcare-related settings.

“With more than 26 million people in the United States who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English, people with limited English proficiency have a higher risk for experiencing healthcare disparities,” Rear Admiral Felicia Collins, MD, deputy assistant secretary for Minority Health, said. “By identifying innovative strategies to enhance access to language services in healthcare, our new initiative will further support OMH’s efforts to advance health equity for all.”

Clear and open patient-provider communication is the cornerstone of patient engagement. However, language barriers make patient-provider communication more difficult and reduce the availability of healthcare information for LEP patients. Studies have also shown that patients with LEP experience greater care delays, lower enrollment in clinical trials, and more care interruptions.

Additionally, discrimination against LEP persons is a violation of federal law. According to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, any entity receiving federal financial assistance must take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to patients with LEP.

Recipients of the OMH grant will implement and evaluate plans to improve language access services through policy development and implementation, technology utilization, education for individuals with LEP, and education for providers, including medical support staff. 

Additionally, awardees will be expected to address health disparities that impact patients with LEP and determine how their effort influence patient outcomes.

“Ensuring appropriate communication with patients who have limited English proficiency is critical to providing high-quality care. Reliance on unqualified individuals to interpret medical information can lead to misunderstandings, devastating outcomes, or even death,” HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) director, Melanie Fontes Rainer, said.

“OCR is proud to lead the HHS Language Access Steering Committee and the Department’s work to exemplify ways that organizations can assess their programs and develop language access plans to ensure persons with LEP have meaningful access to their programs, free of barriers or discrimination,” Rainer continued.

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