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This week, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) released a report summarizing the steps HHS has taken to “improv[e] the provision of meaningful access to language assistance services to persons with limited English proficiency” and the impact of those actions. The report also identifies opportunities for the agency to continue this work.
Language access is critically important in the context of health care and human services. As the report notes, miscommunication may lead to misdiagnosis, improper or delayed treatment, and barriers to needed services and programs. This report is the first of what are to be annual summaries under Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, and is the first of its kind since 2016.
The report highlights several HHS improvements to date, such as increases in in-language online content and multiple language taglines at the bottom of HHS.gov, along with the creation of language-access positions and committees.
Medicare Rights agrees that improved language accessibility is an important goal for HHS broadly and for CMS specifically. Understanding Medicare and accessing benefits can be confusing and technical, and accurate in-language information and forms are both necessary and—despite the progress outlined in this report—unfortunately still lacking. The multiple language taglines at the bottom of HHS.gov are not easy to find, and although this release and report are available in Spanish and Chinese, it is the only one of the last 10 press releases that the agency made available in translated formats.
Similarly, although the “Medicare & You” handbook and some specific forms and documents are available from Medicare, Medicare Advantage Plans, and Part D plans in languages other than English, many other essential communications, including letters explaining how to appeal denials, are not. We urge HHS and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to continue to ensure that people with limited English proficiency needs are able to make fully informed decisions about their Medicare and are able to access all needed care without unnecessary language barriers.
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