A lawsuit is challenging a Clinton-era executive order requiring federally funded hospitals and doctors to provide translators for patients who speak little English, arguing it is an illegal intrusion that will drive physicians out of practice.
The suit against the HHS and its secretary, Tommy Thompson, was filed Monday in San Diego by several physicians and a group supporting English as the nation's official language. It contends that Executive Order 13166 is an expensive and intrusive burden on doctors and limits their right of free speech.
Guidelines on how to implement the 2000 order were issued last year by the health department. They advise healthcare providers to offer free translation services ranging from written materials and phone conferences to bilingual medical staff and trained interpreters.
San Diego orthopedic surgeon Clifford Colwell, M.D., the Pacific Legal Foundation and the not-for-profit group ProEnglish argue that the policy improperly interprets civil rights law to include language.
Colwell and Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish filed a similar lawsuit two years ago in Virginia, but it was dismissed.
Lawyers from Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based firm that supports limiting government interference in private life, said they chose to file in San Diego because Colwell lives in the city.
Colwell said the federal policy "changes how we approach our patients."
"In most cases, a family translator is by far the best because they represent the patient to the best degree they can," he told reporters.
If the order stands, the cost of paying for translators and concerns about potential malpractice and civil rights claims will prompt some doctors to leave immigrant communities or even their profession, argued Jane Orient, M.D., executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which is a plaintiff in the suit.
But the Washington-based National Alliance for Hispanic Health said patients with limited English skills need to fully understand what their doctors are saying.
Family members may lack the skills to accurately translate medical terms, and the patient may not want relatives to know about a medical condition, said Jane Delgado, M.D., president and CEO of the alliance.
Patients who can clearly communicate their symptoms, medical history and treatment will help save money by avoiding unnecessary tests and problems stemming from poor diagnosis or a patient's failure to follow instructions, Delgado said.