The National Health Law Program has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties contending that federal, state, and local agencies are failing to provide individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) meaningful access to COVID services. According to the complaint, this failure violates numerous federal laws, regulations, and guidance and makes access to COVID-19 testing, vaccines, treatment, and contact tracing significantly more difficult for the nation’s nearly 66 million people with LEP. The specifics of the complaint were informed by information provided to the National Health Law Program by more than 35 organizations and individuals, nationwide.
“Everyone in this country has a right to meaningful access to health care in a language they understand, whether they are an Arabic-speaker in Michigan or a Korean-speaker in Georgia,” said senior attorney Priscilla Huang. “Our complaint describes numerous situations where health officials failed to provide needed services. Even in a place as diverse as the City and County of Los Angeles, much of the COVID assistance has only been provided in English, or when provided in other languages translated using auto-translate applications. These auto-translators are notoriously inaccurate, and this is especially true when translating medical and technical information. Officials even used these applications to translate information into Spanish, despite ample evidence early in the pandemic that Latino communities were being disproportionately impacted. Similar situations have occurred across the country. At a visit to a Department of Health vaccination site in New York’s Chinatown, signage and intake questions were not available in Chinese. Colorado, home to two federally recognized Tribes, provided no interpreters in Navajo, Pueblo, Zapotec, and Mixtec.”
“The COVID-19 public health emergency does not exempt federal fund recipients of either HHS or FEMA from complying with federal non-discrimination laws. Both agencies have told their federal fund recipients that they must provide language services during the pandemic,” said managing attorney of the DC office, Mara Youdelman.
Jane Perkins, NHeLP’s Legal Director, stated “While we have anecdotally heard about problems over the last year, our investigation reveals a nationwide problem. We are concerned by reports that the nation’s vaccination rates are leveling off, so we are asking both OCR and FEMA to take action as quickly as possible to address language access barriers.”
The Complaint suggests a number of steps the agencies should take, including:
- Advise entities not to use automated translation software that has not been verified by a qualified translator;
- Engage in monitoring/enforcement regarding the development and use of websites, web-based applications, call centers, and vaccination sites;
- Advise funding recipients to prioritize the use of qualified, in-person interpretation and, for those situations involving less frequently encountered languages, OCR and FEMA should issue guidance to ensure quality remote interpreting;
- Clarify that federal COVID funding can pay for language services and that federal funded entities should compensate community-based organizations when they are being used to provide information and assistance;
- Ensure that data on primary language is collected from recipients, optimally at the first point of contact. This will improve future monitoring and planning activities; and
- For written materials/information, prepare and make available high-quality translated materials and standard taglines for all federal fund recipients to use.