By Dustin Brown
U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) announced Monday new legislation that would boost federal funding for bilingual services at health facilities like Elmhurst Hospital Center, where patients make thousands of requests for translations every year.
“Bilingual health services can mean the difference between life or death for many patients, particularly in diverse neighborhoods like Elmhurst, Queens,” Crowley said Monday afternoon during a press conference at the Elmhurst Community Medical Center, a clinic affiliated with the hospital. “When a patient, any patient, regardless of background, seeks health care, they have a right to get the care they need.”
The Health Access Act of 2002, which Crowley introduced to the House of Representatives April 10, would direct $10 million to fund bilingual programs at hospitals and other medical facilities across the country.
It would supplement $50 million in federal money that already is funding bilingual services at a limited number of eligible hospitals—a list that does not include Elmhurst and many other institutions where translators are in high demand.
“Every single ethnic language background is here in this community, and this hospital deals with it well,” Crowley said as he toured the facility. “They can always use more resources—that’s what this legislation is about.”
The act likely will be bundled into a larger appropriations bill this summer, Crowley said.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires patients be offered interpreter services at no cost, Crowley said the federal government has not provided adequate resources to ensure such services are widely available.
The need for translation services had jumped dramatically over the past decade at Elmhurst Hospital Center, where 8,603 requests were made for translation assistance in 2000 as compared to 1,708 in 1990—an increase of more than 500 percent.
Today, signs across the clinic are written out in three languages—English, Spanish and Mandarin—and the facility’s hallways and waiting rooms are crowded with people from Asia, Central and South America, Europe and Africa who have varied proficiency in English.
In 2000, translation requests were highest for Spanish (71 percent) and Chinese (13 percent), with Korean (10 percent), Bengali (4 percent) and Hindi (3 percent) the next most popular languages.
The hospital typically tries to partner patients with staff members or volunteers who speak their language, said Carol White, Elmhurst’s associate executive director for ambulatory care services.
But when no one is available, the hospital uses a telephone service called the Language Line, which allows the doctor and patient to converse by speaking into receivers connected to a translator, usually someone overseas. More than 4,000 calls were logged with the service last year for translation services in 38 languages at a cost of $51,154.
White said the additional funding from Crowley’s bill would likely be used to improve training for staff and volunteers, as well as to purchase more bilingual materials, like pamphlets and videos.
It also would help the hospital reduce its reliance on patients’ family members to translate, which often compromises confidentiality and prevents people from being completely honest with their doctors.
“This bill would give us more resources to ensure confidentiality and a higher level of interpretation support,” White said.
At Elmhurst, the funding would provide additional resources to improve a service that already is effective, Crowley said.
“This really could be money just to complement what they do right now.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.