The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), led by Xavier Becerra (pictured) released its first annual report on language access on May 24, 2023.
HHS and other departments and agencies that receive Federal funding are required to provide individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) meaningful access to their programs and benefits via language access services. This obligation is further mandated in healthcare by Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.
A major factor in HHS’ renewed focus on language access is Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which President Biden issued in January 2021.
Compounding that, in April 2021 HHS received an inter-agency civil rights complaint alleging a lack of meaningful access to information on Covid testing, vaccination, and treatment programs.
HHS responded by issuing an Equity Action Plan in April 2022, which called for the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Director to designate an office or official responsible for developing and maintaining a language access program.
In October 2022, HHS relaunched its previously inactive Language Access Steering Committee, originally established in 2012, to implement comprehensive language access goals.
The Language Access Steering Committee has established subcommittees to post in-language webpages; establish “Help Lines” supported by telephonic interpreters; increase in-language access to programs and benefit information; and aim to direct funding such that grant recipients can provide language access in a timely manner, and at no cost to individuals with LEP when legally required. (The report includes a “timeline for progress” with medium- and long-term goals for each of these issues.)
HHS has its work cut out for it. “Our approach is that the highest bar should apply,” the report stated in regard to language access services.
“HHS must be capable of providing access to callers who speak languages other than English and Spanish,” the report asserted in a section on telephonic interpreting (OPI), specifying the need for services in Asian, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander languages. “Given the growing number of languages encountered by programs funded and administered by HHS, […] full implementation of the [language access services] goals of the Equity Plan are essential to provide meaningful access to LEP callers and customers. “
The Steering Committee, which held its inaugural meeting on October 11, 2022, will convene quarterly throughout 2023. Subcommittees will meet at least once every two months.
The OCR is also expected to consolidate translation and OPI for HHS through centralized contracts. The new Language Access Coordinator, reporting to the OCR Director, will be responsible for those contracts, as well as the Language Access Plan as a whole.