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Language Becoming an Issue for Health Insurers

A Spanish-speaking couple is suing Blue Cross, saying it should not have yanked a policy that it wrote in English.

March 20, 2006|Lisa Girion | Times Staff Writer

When she learned the cost of an operation that opened her husband's clogged arteries last fall, Maria Rodriguez was glad she had signed the couple up for health coverage several weeks earlier.

But then Blue Cross of California said Raudel Rodriguez, a 53-year-old self-employed scrap-metal hauler, had failed to disclose preexisting conditions -- including chest pain -- that made him uninsurable. The company canceled his coverage, returned $1,700 in premiums and left the couple instead with a $130,000 hospital bill.

The Rodriguezes insist they answered the Blue Cross salesman's questions honestly in a telephone conversation in Spanish. If anything was amiss with the husband's application, they say, the fault lies with Blue Cross because the company filled out their applications in English, a language they do not understand.

"What we want is the deal they promised us -- if we paid them, we were covered," Maria said in Spanish.

Blue Cross, a unit of WellPoint Inc., declined to comment.

With a lawsuit accusing Blue Cross of reneging, the Santa Ana couple has raised an issue that experts say could plague the health insurance industry in coming years as it increasingly reaches out to cover immigrants: Insurers could face legal problems unless they make sure they are doing business with customers in a language they understand.

The case "could have a very dramatic impact in terms of elevating awareness on the part of [health] plans to make sure that they are communicating in the appropriate language with all their members and not just assuming contracts in English are going to be understood," said Gerald Kominski, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Health.

Kominski is an author of a new study that found that as many as 10% of HMO members in California speak no English or have limited proficiency. "They pay their premiums," he said, "and they are entitled to the same level of service as English-speaking members."

Under current law, however, non-English speakers have fewer safeguards when buying health coverage than they do when buying a car or renting an apartment.

Auto dealers and other retailers that sell products with financing long have been required to put contracts in Spanish if that is the language used to make the deal, said Alejandra Cedillo, a Los Angeles County Neighborhood Legal Services lawyer. That protection recently was expanded to consumers who speak Asian languages.

"There's nothing that would apply to health insurance," she said.

That's about to change. The state Department of Managed Health Care expects to finalize rules this year that would require health plans to put key documents in the consumer's primary language and to pay for interpreters to accompany patients to doctors' offices and hospitals.

For Maria Rodriguez, it was a Spanish-language television commercial that prompted her call to Blue Cross last summer. She said she spoke to an agent who described the plan and asked questions about the couple's medical history -- all in Spanish.

The couple said Raudel had complained of chest pain early last year. But his physician had diagnosed heartburn, and they had no reason to believe it was anything more significant.

Applications for coverage -- one for each of them -- arrived in the mail already filled out in English, making it impossible for them to verify the accuracy of the responses. The couple said they signed nonetheless. They began paying premiums of more than $500 every other month on Raudel's policy, which took effect Aug. 1. (The couple pays almost $500 every other month on a separate policy for Maria, which remains in effect.)

A couple of weeks later, Raudel felt chest pain again and went to the doctor. The physician ordered tests but found nothing wrong, the Rodriguezes said.

Finally, after the pains continued, a cardiologist ordered a test that showed for the first time, the couple said, that he had coronary problems. The cardiologist told the couple that if Raudel did not have surgery, he could have a heart attack.

"I told my husband, 'Thank God we got that policy,' " Maria said. "We were scared [about the operation].... But at least it was going to be covered."

Raudel had the operation in mid-September, spent three days in the hospital and went home. A few days before Christmas, Blue Cross canceled their coverage retroactively, citing information it had discovered in Raudel's medical records.

The couple had no idea what the notification letter was about because it was in English. It was not until Raudel went in for a follow-up visit with his physician that they learned that he no longer was covered.

"We cried every day for more than a month," Maria said.

Then they found a lawyer. Jess Araujo, who practices in Santa Ana, contends that the case shows that Blue Cross takes advantage of customers who cannot speak English.

"They want to speak Spanish to hook you in, but then they want to make sure they put the contract in English," Araujo said. "Why do that? There's no shortage of interpreters."

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