Our View: It's the wrong time to add costly interpreters

April 10, 2013 

Assembly Bill 1263 by Speaker John A. Pérez seeks to improve and expand medical interpreter services for Medi-Cal patients.

Access to care can be difficult if patients don't speak English well. Without a qualified interpreter, it's sometimes hard for non-English speaking patients to describe their symptoms or for health care providers to make sure, for example, patients understand a drug regimen.

A 2009 UCLA survey found that 12 percent of Medi-Cal patients had a hard time understanding their doctors because of limited English skills. That number is expected to swell as the federal Affordable Care Act is fully implemented.

The speaker's bill would create a statewide system to train, test and monitor medical interpreters. The bill directs the state to take advantage of enhanced federal funding for interpretation services.

If all the bill did was improve testing, training and monitoring of health care interpreters, and push the state to draw down more federal funding available for their services, it might merit support.

But nearly half of the bill deals with setting up a process for interpreters, most of whom are private contractors, to join a public employee union. It sets a guaranteed minimum compensation of $60 an hour, more than what most interpreters earn now.

Creating a new unionized work force within the health care field is certain to increase financial pressures in a system stressed by soaring costs.

The Department of Finance pegged the cost to the state's general fund at $12.5 million annually for an almost identical measure the speaker introduced last year. Pérez's office estimates that the price tag on this year's bill could go even higher --

$35 million annually after five years of implementation.

California is struggling to absorb a huge expansion of people eligible for health care under the Affordable Care Act. The health care system needs time to adjust to the changes and to absorb the expected new costs. It should not have to take on the burdens and the increased expense of AB 1263 at the same time.

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