East African refugees in City Heights are fighting for better face-to-face medical interpretation. They say current phone-based interpretation services fall short — if they’re used at all — and put patients at risk.

Now there’s momentum in Sacramento behind the cause.

A group called Interpreting for California is working with Assembly Speaker John Perez to introduce legislation later this month that would drastically improve access to medical interpreters. The proposal asks the state government to accept available federal health reform dollars for culturally competent care. The state would then be able to offer interpretation through Medi-Cal.

Currently, California has some of the nation’s strongest laws requiring interpretation in medical settings, but they don’t give medical providers and health officials the tools they need for compliance and enforcement.

“Previously efforts focused on creating laws that would require language access, but because there was no funding available, those laws weren’t entirely effective in delivering actual, real interpreter services,” said Amanda Ream, an organizer for Interpreting for California who’s spearheading the statewide effort.

Ream said because California leads the nation in requiring interpretation, lawmakers and residents often think the job is getting done, especially for Spanish-speakers. With so many bilingual workers in the health care industry, there’s always someone on hand to help patients communicate with their doctors. But Ream and other advocates point out that in medical settings, interpretation needs to be exact.

“Having a person who happens to work in a doctor’s office is very different than having a trained professional interpreter,” Ream said.

And for those who don’t speak Spanish, good interpretation is even harder to come by.

“There’s a phobia starting to build amongst the community that you can’t go to (the doctor’s office) because your language isn’t understood,” said Christina Griffin, who’s working with Interpreting for California locally.

She met with San Diego patients and providers Thursday to begin gathering stories that could buoy support for the legislation.

Currently, about 40 percent of Medi-Cal recipients don’t speak or understand English perfectly. Nationwide, more than 30 percent of the people set to gain Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act are expected to need interpretation services, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

New York and Washington states have already accepted the federal funds for interpretation. Perez introduced a similar bill last year, but it died on the Senate floor in August.

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly at meburks@kpbs.org or 619.550.5665.

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Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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