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State Moves Forward On Study Of Language Services For Non-English Speaking Patients

An ambulance is parked outside of the emergency room at UC San Diego's Medica...

Photo by Susan Murphy

Above: An ambulance is parked outside of the emergency room at UC San Diego's Medical Center in Hillcrest, June 5, 2018.

State health officials selected a vendor this month to evaluate how well Medi-Cal patients with low-English proficiency can access language services in medical situations. The move comes more than two years after a law mandated the study.

Interpretation for foreign-language speaking patients is required by law but advocates have long complained services are often inadequate. Poor communication can put patients at a higher risk of hospitalization and increase healthcare costs for taxpayers.

The Department of Health Care Services issued a Dec. 6 notice of intent to award the contract for the study to Seattle-based Nimdzi Insights, a research and consulting firm focused on the language services industry.

Department of Health Care Services Spokesman Tony Cava said in an email the contract with Nimdzi should begin in February and results are expected by fall, although he noted that is subject to change.

The agency experienced difficulty finding a vendor for the study. It first issued a request for proposals in April but didn't receive any applications. Cava previously told KPBS the department re-posted the request in August after tapping stakeholders for advice.

The California Legislature approved the interpretation services review in 2016 under a bill by then-Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. AB 635 approved up to $3 million for the study and a potential pilot project.

More than 6.7 million Californians speak English less than "very well," according to the 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.

Immigrants and stakeholders in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood have pushed for improved interpretation services for years. American Community Survey estimates show nearly 70 percent of residents over age 5 in the community speak a language other than English at home and about 30 percent speak English less than "very well."

It has taken more than two years, but California is finally making some progress toward improving medical interpretation services for patients who don't speak English.

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