PORTLAND — Federal officials are investigating whether a law requiring language translation to non-English-speaking people is being ignored in Maine.
The law, known as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, targets hospitals, state agencies and other human service organizations that receive federal funds.
The issue also will be the focus of a state legislative hearing Jan. 22.
And the Maine Civil Liberties Union is considering a lawsuit to force Maine Medical Center in Portland to provide patients with better translation services.
At issue is whether people like Omar Aghazadeh get the same level of service as people who speak English.
Aghazadeh, a Kurdish refugee who came to Portland in September, gets refugee assistance from the state Department of Human Services. He receives a lot of correspondence and notices from the DHS.
One recent notice warned that Aghazadeh had not sent back a required questionnaire. “Failure to return your review and finish the review process will result in your assistance being stopped,” the notice said. On the back was a “Civil Rights Notice” that said Aghazadeh has the right to complain if he thinks he’s being discriminated against on the basis of his national origin or other traits.
The notice was in English. But Aghazadeh doesn’t speak or read English.
Failing to provide interpreters may not seem comparable to discrimination based on racism or ethnic bigotry, which is outlawed by the Civil Rights Act.
But the result — depriving people of equal, effective treatment — can be the same, particularly in health care, where proper diagnosis and treatment depend on communication between patient and doctor.
The DHS and Catholic Charities of Maine, the state’s largest private social service agency, both are being investigated for Title VI compliance, said Caroline J. Chang, regional manager of the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Chang said she could not give details, but “it looks like we will become more active in Maine.”
The Jan. 22 legislative hearing is being called by state Rep. Elizabeth J. Mitchell, D-Portland, co-chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee. “I think there are some real instances of civil rights violations.
“I’m not convinced DHS is doing all it can to provide interpreter services,” she said. “I just keep hearing from too many sources there are problems. People who need and are eligible for services, they’re not being treated fairly in the system.” Meanwhile, the Maine Civil Liberties Union says Maine Medical Center is not complying with Title VI or a 1991 compliance agreement with the federal government.
The agreement was reached after the Office of Civil Rights, responding to a 1989 complaint that the hospital did not provide interpreters, said its investigation was likely to find the hospital in violation of federal regulations. The hospital promised to provide 24-hour interpreter services and take other steps to keep that service effective.
Kim Matthews, an attorney representing the MCLU, said the hospital may be sued by a Spanish-speaking woman who was not provided interpreter service during her hospitalization.
“She was in Maine Med for more than two weeks with very serious problems and was never given an interpreter,” Matthews said. “Her daughter asked that an interpreter be provided and the hospital did not.”
Maine Medical Center, the DHS and Catholic Charities of Maine all say they comply with Title VI and meet the needs of Maine’s increasingly diverse population.
“We, like every other public agency, are making changes to accommodate the new populations, particularly in the Portland area,” DHS Commissioner Kevin W. Concannon said. “We’ve taken steps to try to respond to those language issues.”