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Eliminating language and cultural barriers to health care

March 26, 2014: Have you ever had trouble getting a doctor’s appointment when you really needed one? Imagine that frustration compounded by being refused care because a doctor’s office doesn’t have staff who speak your language. Or not getting Medicaid because the case worker didn’t think to call an interpreter to communicate with you. These are only some of the health care challenges facing immigrants and others who speak little to no English. 
Public Justice Center attorney Camilla Roberson is investigating these barriers in collaboration with nonprofits that serve people with limited English skills. This process is uncovering situations like that of an immigrant in Silver Spring, Maryland, who was refused health care because of limited English skills, even though the provider accepted Medicaid and was required by law to provide language support. These challenges likely are not isolated, and Camilla is working with allies to identify and address similar obstacles. 
Barriers to health care can also exist at the point of applying for public benefits. On that front, Camilla serves on the Governmental Access Work Group, a public-private partnership made up of nonprofit advocates and officials from the Maryland Department of Human Resources. This group has been focused on identifying and eliminating barriers to accessing benefits for people who do not speak much English. As a liaison between advocates and DHR staff, Camilla helps design trainings on cultural competency and diversity. Camilla has also assisted with recent trainings of advocates and caseworkers, focused on ensuring that language and ethnicity do not keep people from applying for Medicaid and other safety net services. 
As a result of this new collaboration, DHR has since created and distributed “I speak” cards, which DHR staff can use with clients to determine which language they speak before calling for an interpreter. The Work Group also developed and distributed to local offices “do’s and don’ts” to guide DHR interactions with people of various linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. The Work Group hopes these improvements at DHR will become models for implementing similar reforms across that state.

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