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Andrew Friedman

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Why Is HHS Letting Health Insurance Companies Keep Patients In The Dark?

Posted: 09/21/11 01:25 PM ET

The signing of 2010's health care reform law by President Obama represented a huge step forward in the fight for racial equity in health in the United States. But a new proposal from the Department of Health and Human Services -- one that would let health insurance companies off the hook when it comes to translating vital information for tens of millions of people who are still in the process of learning English about patients' rights -- could undermine key features of health reform.

One of the big gains in health reform is a new set of tools for fighting back when your health insurance company denies your health care. The reform legislation explicitly says that health insurance companies need to let people know about their appeal rights -- and this obligation applies to all people, not just people who are fluent in English.

However, to implement these appeals provisions, (HHS) is proposing rules that would let insurance companies off the hook, requiring translation only for groups that represent 10 percent of a county's population. In other words, if 8 percent of people living in a county speak Vietnamese and are less than fluent in English, insurance companies wouldn't have to let them know about their right to appeal a denial of health care.

A new report entitled Left in the Dark, published by the Alliance for a Just Society, documents just how extensive the free pass being given to the insurance companies is. According to the report, the proposal would undermine the rights of non-English-speakers in 27 states, the District of Columbia, the cities of Chicago and Albuquerque, and a shocking 92 percent of America's counties.

With 24.5 million people in America potentially in need of translations, a significant portion of this country would be left in the dark about their rights. For example, HHS' proposal would shut out the 490,000 Asian and Pacific Islander language speakers in Los Angeles County, the 113,000 Spanish speakers in Alameda County, or the 252,000 Spanish-speaking residents of New York's Kings and Nassau counties.

Of course, it's not just about the numbers. Each one of the people being denied information about their appeal rights is a real person whose life may depend on their ability to appeal their health insurance company decisions. Real accountability is precisely why this notice requirement was included in health reform in the first place. HHS's proposal will let insurance companies deny health care -- and continue to deny it -- based only on the fact that a person is less than fluent in English.

Should a person be denied chemotherapy because he got cancer before he perfected his English? Should a mother be denied a follow-up on a breast exam because her first language is Cantonese?

When millions of Americans supported health reform, we did it based on the belief that we should all have access to the health care we need. HHS should not undermine one of President Obama's primary achievements by letting insurance companies pad their profits by denying health care to millions of new Americans.

HHS should reconsider its proposal and make health reform's due process and patient protections a reality for everyone.