January 31, 2005
80% of Spanish-Language Testers Faced Major Hurdle at DHS
Washington, DC - An independent study commissioned by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest national Latino civil rights organization in the U.S., found that language barriers and related discriminatory practices at the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services (DHS) have drastically limited access to medical
services, such as Medicaid, for the District's large Spanish-speaking community. According to the report, 80% of Spanish-speaking Latinos who participated in on-site visits and telephone testing faced at least one
serious hurdle in obtaining vital medical benefits at DHS.
"This is the first study to compare the treatment of Spanish-speaking Latinos and English-speaking non-Latinos seeking medical insurance, and the results are appalling. The enormous disparity in the medical services and personal treatment these Spanish-speakers received from the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services is unacceptable and clearly violates federal and city law," said Janet Murguia, President and CEO of NCLR. "People are at their most vulnerable when seeking medical help for themselves and their children. They deserve better, as does everyone in our city. Any time a group of people is shut out of accessing basic medical care, it becomes a public health crisis for all of us."
The Equal Rights Center (ERC), a nonprofit civil rights organization that was commissioned by NCLR to conduct the testing, sent matched pairs of Protected (Latino Spanish-speaking) and Controlled (non-Latino English-speaking) testers at the end of 2003 to the DHS centers located at 508 Kennedy Street N.W. and 645 H Street N.E. The matched testers also made telephone calls to the appropriate DHS centers. Both the Protected and Controlled testers sought information about obtaining medical benefits for their U.S.-citizen children. The testers rated their experiences according to five factors, including whether DHS staff provided services and benefits applications and responded to requests for supporting documentation in the appropriate language, and whether DHS staff made any discouraging comments or asked questions that were not related to benefits eligibility. Follow-up telephone tests were conducted at the end of 2004.
"Our analysis found that the Spanish-speaking Latino testers faced a 20% to 30% discrimination rate on each factor evaluated when visiting DHS facilities," said ERC's Executive Director, Bruce E. Kahn. "Some were
asked inappropriate questions that were not relevant to their requests for benefits. In our follow-up phone calls, we found that approximately two out of three times a call was made there was no available Spanish-speaking DHS representative. Given that people's health is at stake, this points to a serious lapse in the provision of necessary
"Having a federal law in place for 40 years should have led the District to comply with language requirements that make it possible for Spanish-speaking Latinos to access DHS medical benefits," said Dr. Juan Romagoza, Executive Director of La ClÃnica del Pueblo, a nonprofit bilingual, bicultural community medical clinic in the District. "Having
the City Council pass the Language Access Act a year ago should have finally addressed the situation. While there have been some improvements, this testing shows that the problem is far from resolved. When will the District's Department of Human Services take this problem seriously? We are talking about people's health and their right to
obtain appropriate medical care as specified by the law."
As a result of the study commissioned by NCLR, the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (WLC) is reaching out to the Latino community in Washington, DC to further document the extent and consequences of discriminatory denial of access to government health benefits. During the next few months, Hispanics in the District will be urged to contact WLC with accounts of their own experiences in seeking medical benefits through the District's DHS.
"If Mayor Williams and the City Council do not take action to correct this serious problem once and for all, we will be forced to examine all of our legal options under District and federal law," said Denise Gilman, Director of the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project of WLC. "We encourage individuals who have experienced this type of discrimination at DHS to contact the Washington Lawyers' Committee. At a minimum, we will look to file civil rights complaints with the relevant local and federal government agencies."