California Requires Private Health Plans To Cover Interpretation Services

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

A law requiring California health, dental and specialty insurers to provide members with interpreters took effect Jan. 1, the Sacramento Bee reports. Of the 37 million people living in California, more than 40% speak a language other than English, and one-fifth of the population say they cannot speak English "very well," according to the Bee.

Federal law requires health plans to provide interpreters for beneficiaries of Medi-Cal and Healthy Families, the state's Medicaid and SCHIP programs, and many hospitals offer interpreters. However, until the law took effect, many patients lacked guaranteed access to an interpreter.


The legislation (SB 853) was signed into law in 2003, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) imposed a moratorium on it when he took office. Insurers had expressed concern about how to balance the need for access to care with cost. Insurers estimate that the law will cost about $25 million. Many insurers plan to contract out for interpretation services.

Anthony Wright, executive director of California Health Access, said, "This law has been a long time coming. Our big concern now is whether people have adequate notice of their rights and can actually use them." The state intends to launch a campaign in the next few weeks to publicize the law.

Cindy Ehnes -- director of the state Department of Managed Health Care, which will oversee implementation of the new law -- said that testimony given at hearings on the issue "was an incredible eye-opener to me." She added, "Often these people who can't speak English are told to go home unless they bring somebody who can. It was like being treated by a system as if they had no consequence" (Caina Calvan, Sacramento Bee, 1/3).

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