Ruling favors patients' right to translators

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 10 14:31:25 UTC 2005

   From the San Francisco Chronicle,

Ruling favors patients' right to translators
Suit by doctors and others dismissed

- Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005

A federal judge has dismissed a suit by a group of doctors and the advocacy
organization ProEnglish challenging a government policy that says medical
providers risk losing federal funding if they fail to furnish translators for
patients who speak little or no English.

The suit, filed in August in federal court in San Diego, said policy guidelines
adopted by both the Clinton and Bush administrations would impose financial
burdens that might force some doctors to stop serving the poor. The suit also
argued that the federal law banning discrimination based on national origin
does not extend to languages.

But U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz, in a ruling made public Tuesday,
said the claims were premature, at best, because none of the doctors involved
in the suit could show they faced imminent harm.

The guidelines, based on an August 2000 executive order by President Bill
Clinton, tell doctors and health care facilities receiving federal funds that
they must provide meaningful access to limited-English-speaking patients or
risk losing their funding. Under the guidelines, oral interpreters are to be
provided for the most urgent services, but facilities do not have to provide
language services that cost substantially more than the benefits they offer.

Moskowitz said the guidelines were flexible and allowed doctors to assess their
obligations based on their patients and resources. He said none of the doctors
in the suit had shown that they would be required to hire translators or that
the government had threatened action against them.

The judge also questioned arguments by the doctors' lawyers that translators
were unnecessary because doctors could rely on a patient's family and friends
or body language to communicate. Family and friends may be unable to help, and
body language will seldom be adequate to convey questions and answers between
doctors and patients, Moskowitz said.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs, said they would
appeal. The doctors "face civil rights charges if they don't provide translator
services, and they face significant financial hardship if they do comply,'' said
foundation attorney Sharon Browne.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko at

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©2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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