HARBOR CITY — A federal agency is monitoring Bay Harbor Hospital to make sure it abides by an agreement made to settle charges that the 150-bed hospital discriminated against patients who could not speak English.
Among other things, the hospital is required to develop programs to train and test volunteer medical interpreters, appoint a coordinator of bilingual services, review existing Spanish-language medical material and determine whether more should be made available, and ensure that the public knows that interpreter services are available. It also must clarify its policy on where English must be spoken in the hospital.
The agreement, in which the hospital does not acknowledge any wrongdoing, came after an investigation last year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights.
The agency concluded that only half of the hospital's 22 designated interpreters were "adequate" in interpreting patients' complaints and doctors' instructions. Investigators also said the hospital lacked a central authority for bilingual services and did not make it clear to patients that interpreters were available.
Virginia Apodaca, regional manager of the Office of Civil Rights, said that Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against patients in hospitals that receive public money in the form of grants or Medicare or Medi-Cal payments.
While the law does not specifically require bilingual services, hospitals must make sure that patients who do not speak English are able to communicate with doctors and that they understand medical procedures that affect them. "Patients cannot benefit if they do not understand," Apodaca said.
She said that most hospitals have some problems in complying, often because they do not understand the regulations, do not have trained interpreters or do not know what language skills their staff has. She said that every year in the region covered by her office--California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and the Pacific Trust Territories--about 20 hospitals are put on programs, such as the one at Bay Harbor.
Apodaca said her office usually gets involved when there is a complaint, but it also tries to check on compliance through routine reviews of hospitals. "In 10 years, we hope to go to all of them," she said.
Results of the investigation at Bay Harbor, including the agreement concluded last Oct. 15, were disclosed in federal documents recently released by attorneys for Herlinda Rodriguez, a former Bay Harbor nursing secretary who filed a discrimination complaint against the hospital in October, 1985.
A San Pedro resident, Rodriguez claims she was forced to quit her job because of harassment stemming from her complaints about hospital procedures. Hospital officials, however, have described her as a disgruntled employee who quit.
A hospital spokeswoman said attorneys have advised hospital officials not to be interviewed because of a separate wrongful-termination suit that Rodriguez has brought against Bay Harbor, which is pending.
However, in a prepared statement, the hospital administration said that as part Bay Harbor's "commitment to serving the health needs of our community," staff members have provided voluntary interpreting and translating services for many years.
"In the normal course of events, we continually monitor and evaluate the services we provide in order to discover if they can be made even better and more responsive to the needs of our clients," the statement said. "As part of that ongoing process, we have examined our program of interpreting and translating services and made certain changes. We continue to evaluate these services and anticipate that even more improvements will be made in the near future."
Rodriguez asserted in her complaint that the hospital routinely uses Spanish-speaking housekeepers as interpreters, although they have no medical training; that patient information booklets are only in English; that Spanish-speakers "are not adequately informed" about medical procedures, and that Spanish-speakers generally are treated differently than English-speakers and may be asked to offer proof of legal residency when seeking treatment.
Rodriguez asserted that employees were sometimes pressured to act as interpreters when they didn't want to. She also charged that some employees were disciplined for speaking Spanish and other languages in the hospital, even among themselves.
Points in Agreement
The agreement forbids intimidation of employees for refusing to interpret, or for speaking languages other than English outside of "critical care areas" or where patient care is involved.
Investigators, according to the documents, tested the 22 people then serving as interpreters. They concluded that 11 were "adequate" interpreters, three were "borderline fluent" and eight "should not be on the interpreter list or utilized."