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Priscilla Huang's picture

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is a time to learn about and celebrate the significant contributions AAPIs have made to America. For me, it’s also a chance to highlight for our political leaders the many struggles AAPIs still face.

Growing up the child of immigrant parents, I often served as a translator and cultural navigator for my mother. Although my mother is considered fluent in English, she did not always understand less commonly used terms and often needed help filling out forms, shopping for groceries and drafting written correspondence with teachers and doctors. This situation is not uncommon in immigrant families. Often times, children such as Thanh try to fill this role because many of the agencies and organizations new immigrants must navigate do not offer help in other languages.

With a rising population—AAPIs number close to 18 million—that is 60 percent foreign born, language access is even more challenging for AAPIs who hail from more than 50 countries and ethnic groups and speak more than 100 different languages.

Language barriers can have devastating effects on AAPIs, their families and communities, especially when it comes to health care. Imagine what can happen in an emergency room when a patient who primarily speaks Tagalog, Vietnamese or Chinese needs help. If a competent medical interpreter is not on hand, errors can happen, costing lives and millions of dollars. 

In the case of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl, the failure to provide a competent interpreter cost the patient her life. The patient, who died from a reaction to the drug Reglan, was misdiagnosed by the emergency room physician. She and her 16-year-old brother had served as interpreters for their parents who primarily speak Vietnamese.  

As states enact the health care reform law, language barriers can become even more pronounced. Buying health insurance is already complicated and for those who don’t speak English or can’t speak it very well, there is the potential for a lot of confusion during open enrollment. In California alone, more than 100,000 people could miss out on the benefits of health reform because of language barriers.

Health justice organizations, including the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, are urging the federal government to ensure that health reform works for all communities. To make the application process easier, these organizations have asked that the new marketplace application that millions of Americans will use be fully translated into a minimum of 15 languages.

Additionally, developing language glossaries that include standard translations of commonly used health-care terms would be very beneficial not only to marketplace entities, states, competent interpreters and navigators (entities or individuals charged with providing fair and impartial information to potential enrollees about health insurance), but they would also provide valuable assistance to help consumers with the enrollment process. Health care terms are already difficult to understand for native English speakers like me, and the law addresses this by requiring insurers to use clear, simple and easy-to-understand terms when providing information about health insurance coverage to consumers. It’s only fair that more limited English speakers like my mother are provided the same tools.

If language barriers are not addressed before the open enrollment period begins, millions of people may lose out on the chance to finally get health insurance, a big and unnecessary price to pay.

As we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, let's not forget that although AAPIs have prevailed over some struggles and contributed to the fabric of America, there are many obstacles that they have yet to overcome. 


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