A new state bill could require Hawaii island hospitals to provide medical interpretation services for speakers of Micronesian languages such as Chuukese and Marshallese. According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the Senate Bill 1285 (SB 1285), which was introduced by Senator Dru Kanuha (D), has been passed by the House Health, Human Services, and Homelessness Committee.
The state of Hawaii has a large population of Micronesian immigrants who are eligible to migrate to the United States visa-free, under the Compacts of Free Association Act (COFA). Although it was initially written to include all state hospitals in Hawaii that provide services to immigrants under COFA, it was later amended to serve as a pilot program which will only affect hospitals on the island of Hawaii after outcry from Oahu hospitals over the financial implications of the bill.
In addition to requiring that hospitals provide interpreters for Micronesian patients, SB 1285 also mandates that hospitals serving COFA benefit recipients establish a cultural diversity and inclusion training program for all of its staff members. According to the bill, one of the main goal in taking these actions is to “bridge the language and cultural gap with the community.”
According to the Honolulu Star-Adviser, non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders were some of the hardest hit groups during the COVID-19 pandemic — though health and wellness disparities were evident even before the pandemic began.
Many individuals who immigrate from Micronesian states like Chuuk or the Marshall Islands do so in search of healthcare, though COFA immigrants are currently quite limited in terms of what health services and prescription drugs they can receive. Almost 25 years ago, COFA immigrants lost the eligibility to receive Medicaid benefits, which led to more frequent emergency room visits among Micronesian immigrant populations. A 2019 study published in Social Medicine also found that Micronesian immigrants to Hawaii faced unequal access to healthcare systems, many times as a result of racial discrimination and lack of cultural awareness.