City Heights group pushing for changes in medical translation service

Members of the Access to Health Care Momentum team discuss medical interpretation on July 16 at the Scripps City Heights Wellness Center

Area residents are pushing for insurance reimbursements to clinics that have to pay for translation services during medical appointments – along with better service.

Many clinics in City Heights have an all-language line. These are blue phones with two handsets that have as many as 300 different languages listed. Clinic employees pick up one handset and push a button to dial an interpreter for whatever language is needed in which to communicate. The patients pick up the other handset for instructions that are relayed in different languages. Clinics typically pay for this service but are not reimbursed for the cost of these calls, which run about $4 a minute, according to Alex Nuñez of La Maestra Community Health Centers.

Not only are some Mid-City residents frustrated about the costs, but some are not happy with the service, either. Amina Mohamud, co-chair of the Access to Health Care Momentum Team and member of City Heights Hope, was frustrated by her experience with this service.

“I went to a clinic and asked for interpretation,” Mohamud, originally from Somali, said through an interpreter. “I had to wait four or five hours for them to arrange a telephone interview with someone — maybe from a different state.

Problems also arise in the Somali language. For example, the word for “heart” and “liver” are the same. For reasons like this and others, although the translators may speak a different language they may struggle with medical terms.

“So there are a lot of issues, and sometimes we say, `I don’t want to go to the doctor,’ even when I’m sick,” Mohamud said

To help address these problems, the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network’s Access to Health Care Momentum Team has developed an initiative to ask insurance companies for reimbursements for face-to-face translation costs. They are hoping to have reimbursements implemented by the time the Affordable Health Care act is implemented in 2014.

Birefes Ali, a City Heights resident as well as an Access to Health Care Momentum Team member and City Heights Hope member, says that requiring insurers to reimburse for face-to-face translation would improve health care for many. This might be done with contract translators or video calls, among other options.

“Whenever I go to the doctor’s [office, I have a] problem understanding my doctor, or the doctor (has a problem) understanding me,” she said.

Ali, who is originally from Ethiopia, said when she was pregnant she was offered telephone translation at a hospital in La Jolla.

“It doesn’t really make any sense,” Ali said. “My broken English is better, because we are talking and waiting.

“It’s not easy. It’s a big mess”

The Access to Health Care Momentum Team is taking a break until Aug. 27, after Ramadan ends. Afterward, the group will begin working with residents to discuss how best to implement its plan.