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Michelle Steel and Daniel Garza: Pass the SPEAK Act to improve access to health care

Michelle Steel and Daniel Garza: Pass the SPEAK Act to improve access to health care

(OC Register Nov 1, 2023) – Imagine yourself at the doctor’s office, seated next to your mother who only speaks Korean. You listen intently, focused on each and every word the doctor said while furiously taking notes. It’s easy to feel frustrated. How can someone share in the right language, in the right way, how your mother feels and most importantly how do you translate the information you were receiving in English to Korean.

Things often get lost in translation and this challenge affects millions of Americans. Telehealth for example, is a phenomenal resource that continues improving health care access not just by lowering costs but by removing the temporal and geographical barriers to care. Unfortunately, not all Americans have been able to benefit.

Patients with limited English proficiency are significantly less likely than other Americans to make use of telehealth. The demand for these services is present in communities with limited English proficiency, but to solve this problem it will require a bipartisan effort. That is why it is so important to find common ground in Congress to help break down language barriers in this country to improve access to our health care system. The introduction of the Supporting Patient Education and Knowledge (SPEAK) Act marks an important step toward assuring that all Americans have access to the care they need.

The SPEAK Act would create a taskforce to identify how best to support the over 25 million people in the U.S. with limited English proficiency and ensure that they can also benefit from new health care services. Health care affects all of us and a language barrier is not just a treatment barrier, but it is also expensive. Not only does limited language access keep individuals from receiving proper care or even pursuing it, but unclear communication can result in real harm to patients and providers.

The numbers themselves speak volumes—patients with limited English proficiency face an elevated risk of medical errors, and a staggering $1.7 billion in medical malpractice costs over five years could have been averted with improved patient communication. It’s more than just policy; it’s about drastically improving and even saving lives. The SPEAK act is more than a message, it’s a commitment to making healthcare services accessible to all Americans.

The Asian and Hispanic communities to which we belong would benefit greatly from increased language access. Together these two communities represent 60 percent of California’s 45th district and 54 percent of the whole state. Many of us enjoy the rich diversity of our community: from the Vietnamese Night Market in Little Saigon to the culture celebrations in Buena Park, our district represents the best of America, and we should want all Americans, regardless of origin, to be able to receive services just like everyone else.

Being the children of immigrants, we both personally understand the challenges that can come from limited language access, especially in the realm of health care. We know well the look of relief from our own parents when they find a health care professional who speaks their language. We, like countless others, find ourselves in the doctor’s office translating for family members. Increasing language access doesn’t just benefit the single individual with limited English proficiency but also has positive effects on their caregivers and family unit. The SPEAK Act is a step toward a world where our families and neighbors could not only access the care and treatment they need, but also be able to fully understand their options. This act is a step towards ensuring dignity in health care access. 

In navigating the complexities of healthcare, the SPEAK Act emerges not just as a legislative document but as a promise to transform a system burdened by language barriers. We can and should do better for all Americans, regardless of the language they speak. Quite simply, bringing together a task force in partnership with the White House and diverse inputs from the medical professional and grassroots stakeholders to bring together ideas and present solutions to improve health care access is the right thing to do. Searching for solutions and improving health care access is an issue that requires collaboration and goes beyond party politics, which is why the SPEAK Act has received robust bipartisan, community, and industry support. 

As we look to the future, we know that now isn’t the time for division, we should all come to the table to work across the aisle to find solutions that help all Americans. To speak for those without a voice and bring everyone closer to achieving results and allowing everyone to pursue their American Dream.