Language Services in Health Care are a Life-line for Diverse Communities

The Affordable Care Act has been in place for more than five years, with much work being done across the country by community health clinics, health insurance navigators and others to reach and enroll millions of Americans in affordable health coverage. Yet for those who lack information about how to get covered because they speak a language other than English or don’t speak English very well, the the promise of accessible health care remains elusive.

With specific challenges facing those who are limited English proficient (LEP), targeted work is necessary to ensure health care reaches all communities. Within the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AA and NHPI) community, where one in three individuals has difficulty speaking, writing, reading or understanding English, efforts to provide resources and support through outreach and enrollment in languages other than English or Spanish are quite literally a life-line.

Efforts like those from Action for Health Justice (AHJ), a national coalition of more than 70 AA and NHPI community-based organizations and Federally Qualified Health Centers, illuminate the critical role community groups play in reaching LEP families. For example, one of AHJ’s local partners, Arizona’s Asian Pacific Community in Action (APCA), is the state’s only health organization with the capacity and training to assist the AA and NHPI community in enrolling in coverage. Navigators who are fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, and Urdu coordinate with interpreters to ensure language needs in the community are met. During the first and second Open Enrollment periods, APCA helped more than 3,600 AAs and NHPIs enroll in coverage through the Marketplace and Medicaid. In late December, a Vietnamese client who had successfully enrolled in Marketplace coverage returned to the clinic to get further assistance from APCA in choosing a provider and paying their premium. Without APCA’s help, many of these individuals and families would never have been able to navigate the application alone.

Health care and health insurance can be confusing enough to explain in English, let alone another language. Clinics like APCA carry most of the burden to ensure community members have trustworthy and accurate information in their languages. Recently, APCA worked with a community member, who speaks a rare language spoken in India, to call the Marketplace center. The available interpreter was not able to explain the health insurance terminology clearly, which caused confusion and disheartenment for the client.

One of the clearest lessons from the first two Open Enrollment efforts was the need for in-language materials that explain complex terminology and concepts in diverse languages, a call to which AHJ and its partners responded by publishing a free glossary available in English and 12 Asian and Pacific Islander languages that provides definitions for 100 common health and health insurance terms.

With the third Open Enrollment period soon coming to a close on January 31, health advocates must continue to draw from and advocate on behalf of lessons learned in past outreach and enrollment efforts to eliminate language barriers and ensure the promise of the ACA reaches all communities.

Kathy Ko Chin is president and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, a member of Action for Health Justice