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Priscilla Huang's picture

Before becoming a mother, having quality health care didn't mean as much to me as it does now. But since having my son almost two years ago, I'm more driven than ever to make sure that everyone, especially women and children, has access to affordable health care.

As policy director of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, I'm very lucky to work with a great team of people who are striving for the same goal.

To say that we were overjoyed when the Affordable Care Act was finally passed and upheld by the Supreme Court, would be an understatement. At APIAHF, we focus much of our work on stamping out disparities and view the ACA as a needed tool to help our country one day achieve health equity.

But, while the ACA has already helped millions of uninsured and underinsured individuals and families, there are still a few variables that stand in the way of attaining full access to health care for all.

Open enrollment under the ACA is in full swing until March 31, but there are some families finding it difficult to take advantage of our new health law because of language access.

As the child of immigrants, I know firsthand how language barriers can get in the way of understanding general issues, and health care is no exception. Oftentimes as a young child, I served as a translator and cultural navigator for my mother even though she is considered fluent in the English language. Despite her fluency, she needed assistance communicating more complicated and nuanced concepts with teachers, doctors and other professionals.

My family is not alone in this scenario. There are many families that encounter the same or similar language barriers. And, when you compound the issue with medical jargon that is sometimes hard for even native-born speakers to understand it makes people fearful and apprehensive.

Approximately 25 million individuals in the United States are limited-English proficient (LEP), meaning they speak English less than “very well” or not at all. About 9 million of these are uninsured LEP adults. When launched in English and Spanish only, it closed the door to millions of people who are considered limited-English proficient, including more than 4 million LEP Asians and Pacific Islanders. And, while there are a limited number of interpreters available to assist people who have questions through the federal Call Center, the quality of the interpretation has been dubious.

Some families don't have a child, loved one or neighbor they can rely on to help them navigate the marketplace, and unfortunately this is impacting the number of people who sign up.

Across the country, organizations and community-based groups are doing their best to band aid the situation by providing translation and interpretation services and helping people enroll. However, with limited support from state and federal governments and high demand, these community assisters are not able to reach all of those in need. And, many of those who are LEP desperately need health care but are either afraid to enroll or are too frustrated by the roadblocks they encounter to sign up that they simply don't.

Language barriers can have devastating effects on families and communities. As a mother, I can imagine how disempowering it must feel to have to rely on a child to get something as vital as health care, when my instinct as a parent is that it should be the other way around.

In principle, the ACA is one of the greatest pieces of legislation passed in this country since Medicaid, but blocking people out of the system due to language barriers holds us back from fulfilling the promise of health reform: health care for everyone. We need to create an enrollment process that lives up to this promise. For some LEP families, it could be a matter of life or death.

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