No speak English?
In Thursday night's Mayoral debate at the Apollo, Thomas Ognibene declared that, if elected Mayor, he would undo civil rights laws that require New York hospitals to provide interpretation and translation services to patients who do not speak or understand English because these services are a "waste of money."
Let's leave aside Ognibene's apparent ignorance of the fact that most of these requirements come from federal and state civil rights law that Mayor of New York City has no power to undo and focus on his contention that providing these services are a waste of money.
Are translation services unnecessary?
Today, one out of every four New York City residents does not speak English. If a recent immigrant mother from Mexico whose young daughter is suffering from a high fever and a hacking cough at two in the morning goes to the emergency room, how could she receive quality medical care without translation or interpretation services?
At the end of the day, language assistance services are just like other pesky health care expenses - like using clean hypodermic needles, changing patients' sheets and requiring professional training for doctors and nurses. They are a necessary component part of quality care.
Providing language assistance services is also an effective way to prevent a number of avoidable expenses. Let's say the young mother's child had a contagious disease, like pneumonia. If the emergency room physician failed to correctly diagnose the problem, or to describe the treatment protocol to the mother, the young girl's siblings or classmates could soon find themselves in the emergency room. Additionally, effective communication can prevent unnecessary expenses like duplicative diagnostic tests.
But what about learning English? Isn't English the official language of the United States?
People who do not spend much time in immigrant communities often fear that immigrants do not want to learn English. A recent study by the New York Immigration Coalition, though, shows that immigrants are signing up in droves for English as a second language classes, and that over ninety percent of the need for such classes goes unmet.
Additionally, even if every limited English proficient New Yorker who wanted to learn English could find a place in an English class, learning English takes time. These New Yorkers and their families will continue to need health care in the meantime, as will future immigrants.
It is critically important that New York hospitals be equipped to provide high quality health of all New Yorkers.