Emergency Room Help

For English Speakers Only?

Make the Road's members complained of having to resort to using their young children to translate, or not understanding the correct dosage or side effects of their medicine. The complaint listed a number of other problems, including delayed treatment, improper diagnoses, and ineffective medical treatment.

The attorney general's inquiry comes on the heels of an Institute of Medicine report showing that people of color receive lower quality health care than whites, even when they have the same insurance and income. Friedman wasn't surprised by this report. "It's certainly resonant with the experience of people in our neighborhood," he said.

The inquiry is also concurrent with a lawsuit pressed against the Bush administration by ProEnglish, a Virginia organization working to make English the national language. They have sued to reverse Executive Order 13166, an order President Clinton signed in 2000, which outlined the protection of limited-English speakers under the Civil Rights Amendment, refusing federal funding to organizations who don't provide translation services to their clients.

Josefa Marín and her son Carlos
photo: Michael Kamber
Josefa Marín and her son Carlos

"The executive order creates a huge additional expense for doctors and hospitals, what with the added costs of translators, and it opens up a whole new venue for medical malpractice suits," said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish. In reference to the complaints filed by Make the Road by Walking, he said, "It's this sort of lawsuit that will become an epidemic if we don't overturn Executive Order 13166."

Even if the White House were to overturn the executive order, hospitals may be held accountable for providing services by state or local laws. Queens councilmember John Liu has introduced the Equal Access to Health and Human Services Bill, which would require many city agencies and large agency contractors to provide free translation services. Liu said that over 20 councilmembers had agreed to co-sponsor the bill.

Friedman would like to see the bill passed. "As New York City demographics keep shifting and more and more New Yorkers don't feel comfortable communicating in English, enabling their ability to access health care should be a fundamental task for the administration," he said.

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