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WASHINGTON, DC-Doctors are fighting a US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines saying they must provide interpreters to communicate with patients who do not speak English.
Physician groups are arguing the cost of such services would be more than the doctor would receive for treating the patient. The American Medical Association (AMA) argues the law unfairly cuts into doctors' income. The group, along with 50 state medical societies and many others, are lobbying to prevent the rules from being enforced.
On the other end of the argument, the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and the AARP are asking the HHS to enforce the rules now to protect patients who cannot communicate with their physician.
The requirement to provide interpreters is for all patients whose bills are paid by Medicaid, Medicare, and other federal programs. This has led doctors to say they will no longer treat patients using such funding to pay their bills.
Although the cost of interpreters is also being debated, some hospitals have faced the communication problem head on by hiring bilingual nurses and doctors, asking for volunteers to be medical interpreters and hiring those in the community when absolutely necessary.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act made all government services, including healthcare, available to citizens without regard to national origin. President Clinton signed a bill in May 2000 saying federal agencies needed to make services accessible to all people with limited English abilities.
At the time HHS examined their rules about medical care. While some doctors say interpretation should be left to the patient's checkbook, others want the patients' friends and family to interpret. Health officials say this would pose problems for those who are uncomfortable to speak of health issues in front of others.
HHS says they have yet to enforce the rules. In the meantime, a bill before Congress would rescind the interpreter rule.