The irony was not lost for me that while writing on the positive results of the FDA’s use of translation services, that here in my state, once known as a national leader in language services, we are still struggling to get quality translations for our Health Benefits Exchange (HBE). The efforts to achieve this goal have been a major focus for the Washington State Coalition for Language Access, and its been a year now since we co-authored with Northwest Health Law Advocates the report Language Access in Washington under the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act expressly for the HBE efforts. Now with 175,000 enrollees, Washington State deserves the praise it’s getting for the record-breaking enrollment figures in the new health insurance marketplace Washington Healthplanfinder, especially compared to the situation in neighboring Oregon and to the federal Healthcare.gov platform. But the picture is much less rosy regarding providing equal access for Washingtonians with limited English proficiency (LEP), who now number some 8% of state population or half-million residents, representing an increase of 210 % in the past decade . Demographic data on enrollees is said not to be available.
We are now less than 2 weeks away from the enrollment deadline for coverage to start Jan. 1, 2014, and the consumer fact sheets that were intended to inform the public of the options under the ACA have not yet been made available to Washington’s LEP population. Even though work began in July to replace the problematic original translations – errors brought to HBE’s attention by advocates- there are still no consumer fact sheets available in Washington’s threshold languages ( in written form these are: Chinese, Lao, Khmer, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Somali, and Vietnamese).
In addition, the Spanish versions of the paper application for Healthplanfinder, while continuing to be publicly available, have contained horrific translation errors. In the section which inquires about the applicant’s citizenship status, the phrase ” Non-citizen legally present in the US” was translated into Spanish to mean just the opposite, i.e., the translation says “ non-citizen not legally present….” , complete with the I-word in Spanish in version #1. After the mistake was identified on Oct. 15 , again by advocates, staff said they took immediate action to have the vendor correct it. The screenshots included here show the sections containing the mistranslations.
Spanish version #1
And yet, advocates identified that the new translation contained the same error, just written with different wording. Here is Spanish version #2, as it appeared on Nov. 14:
This one particular error may now have been recently corrected for a 3rd iteration, through volunteer efforts of local language access advocates trying to beat the clock to help consumers. However, we hear anecdotally that more translation concerns persist and can’t be confident that there are not similar errors in the translations in the other languages.
What remains a mystery is how this sorry state of affairs has come about, and if there were ever robust quality assurance measures in the procurement chain for the translations. It is beyond comprehension how such blatant errors could be made given that the work was done by vendors holding official State contracts who must affirm that they use qualified translators and proper translation procedures. And if this is happening in Spanish, the 2nd most used language in both our State and nationally, and thus one for which there is an ample number of nationally-certified translators available to do the work, there is a real reason to fear that similar egregious errors may exist in other language translations.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, HBE staffers announced at a meeting of its Health Equity Technical Advisory Committee, that work halted back in June to create a Language Access Plan (LAP) for the HBE requested by the TAC , will resume in the new year. LAPs are meant to serve as blueprints to guide the work of agencies and programs to comply with the laws requiring they provide language services, and to help prevent the kind of problems that we’ve being seeing here in the other Washington. I’ll continue to report on the work in progress.
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