Barrios Bill Would Mandate Interpreters in ER

State representative Jarrett T. Barrios '90 (D-Cambridge) is proposing a bill that would require all Massachusetts hospital emergency rooms to have access to interpretive language services.

The bill, called House bill 1172, is currently in the hands of the state legislature's Joint Committee on Health Care. It must receive approval from the committee before the entire legislature can vote on it.

"Every acute [emergency room] hospital shall provide competent professional interpreter services," the bill states.

According to Barrios, every emergency room should have access to interpretive services because good communication with physicians is vital to the health of patients.

Though similar bills have failed in recent years, this bill has a better chance of passing because it has strong political backing, Barrios said, noting that the Massachusetts Hospital Association has endorsed it.


Last Thursday, at a hearing of the committee, several people discussed experiences in the emergency room when a language barrier became a problem.

Paulo Lopes, an immigrant from Angola, said that when he was a young boy, his mother failed to receive a needed hysterectomy on her first trip to the emergency room because neither he nor his mother could effectively communicate with the doctors, according to a transcript from the hearing.

"At 10 years old, I hadn't known how to articulate my mother's symptoms, understand the questions that the doctor was posing or understand the severity of her condition," Lopes said. "If there had been someone there to explain to her what was happening and what treatment she needed, this would not have happened."

Some area hospitals already offer interpretive services. Due to the ethnic makeup of Cambridge, hospitals such as the Cambridge Health Alliance, Mt. Auburn Hospital and Harvard's University Health Services have interpreters.

The services vary from a staff of interpreters to the use of a language phone line that interprets 140 languages.

The Cambridge Health Alliance has the best interpretive services of any hospital in Massachusetts, Barrios said.

According to Loretta Saint-Louis, director of the Multilingual Interpreting Department of the Cambridge Health Alliance, the hospital has been using interpreters for more than 20 years. Over half of the hospital's clientele is non-English speaking, she said.

Unlike other parts of the Boston area, Saint-Louis said Cambridge does not have a dominant non-English language. She said the Cambridge Health Alliance has interpreters for up to 30 languages, with the main ones being Portuguese, Spanish, Hindi, Haitian Creole, Gujarati, Bengali, Cape Verdian and French.

The bill Barrios is proposing would ask hospitals to decide the languages for which to provide interpreters based on the composition of the non-English-speaking clientele in their communities.

Barrios said he also has a personal attachment to the bill because as a Latino, he knows firsthand the problems non-English-speakers face in the emergency room.

"I know a number of Latino people who have had bad experiences when admitted to the emergency room," he said.

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