Oregon senate bill generates debate among interpreters, LSPs, labor organizers

A recently introduced senate bill in Oregon is drumming up a bit of controversy among healthcare interpreters and language service providers (LSPs) that work in the state.

Senate Bill 584 (SB 584) was introduced Jan. 9. If passed into law, the bill would require the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to create a centralized online scheduling portal for healthcare providers that participate in the Oregon Health Plan or Medicaid to book and pay certified healthcare interpreters directly.

The bill was the subject of a public hearing on Feb. 8, where it received strong support from healthcare interpreters and labor organizers. However, an upcoming public hearing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon is likely to see much stronger opposition to the bill, as more than 100 letters and written testimonies opposing the bill have since been submitted to the Oregon Senate Committee on Health Care. 

At the Feb. 8 public hearing, supporters claimed that the bill would improve access to certified healthcare interpreters for individuals with limited English proficiency. In his testimony at the hearing, Lamar Wise, a political coordinator at Oregon AFSCME noted that the top-performing coordinated care organizations (CCOs) were only able to fill 30% of interpreter appointments with credentialed interpreters. Comparing Oregon to the neighboring state of Washington, which has already adopted a portal similar to the one proposed in SB 584, he stated that 91% of appointments there were filled with credentialed interpreters.

“It takes an intentional system and funding to support language access for our communities, and this is something we assume our healthcare system understands,” said Gloria Ochoa-Sandoval, policy director of Unite Oregon, at the Feb. 8 hearing.

Shortly after the Feb. 8 hearing, several individuals submitted testimonies opposing the bill, which is likely to be discussed at Wednesday’s hearing. Opponents of the bill — which includes interpreters and leadership at various LSPs alike — largely acknowledge the bill’s good intentions but fear that it could have unintended consequences. CEO and founder of Linguava, David Brackett, wrote in his public testimony that he believes SB 584 would actually restrict language access for the patients who need interpreting services.

Noting that the registry of OHA-certified healthcare interpreters is limited to just 36 languages (many of which only have one or two interpreters), Brackett argues that requiring Medicaid and OHP providers to work only with these interpreters would severely limit the number of interpreters available. Similarly, opponents argue that the many LSPs working with interpreters outside of the OHA-certified pool are crucial to providing effective language access — in other words, that creating a more centralized portal of OHA-certified interpreters would create a bottleneck in the process of appointing an interpreter.

Additionally, many of the interpreters who submitted written testimony ahead of Wednesday’s hearing wrote that they believe SB 584 would complicate their work as independent contractors.

“The use of an Oregon state-run scheduling platform for interpreting services would further restrict and delay language access, leading to a decline in health outcomes for already disadvantaged communities,” Brackett writes. “For these reasons I vote to oppose SB 584.”

Wednesday’s hearing will take place at 1 p.m. PST — those interested in learning more about SB 584 can watch a recording of the Feb. 8 hearing, view a livestream of Wednesday’s hearing, and read written testimony at the Oregon State Legislature’s website here.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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