American Translators Association Nudges Oregon to Improve Healthcare Interpreting Bill

ATA and Oregon Senate Bill 584

More than four months since Senator Kayse Jama (D) introduced it in January 2023, Oregon Senate Bill 584 (OR SB584) may shape up to be the bill on healthcare interpreting that the American Translators Association (ATA) would like to see.

The bill, “Relating to health care interpreters,” is currently pending in the state’s Senate Health Care Committee, which convened most recently in a work session on April 3, 2023.

In a February 17, 2023 letter to the committee’s chair and vice chair, the ATA described the goals behind the bill — improving working conditions and wages for healthcare interpreters — as “laudable.”

The letter went on, however, to warn that “in its current form, this bill will likely result in adverse consequences for Oregonian patients due to the [Oregon Health Authority]’s lack of funding, insufficient language coverage (especially among Indigenous languages), and lack of remote interpreting capabilities.”

SB584 charges the OHA with setting up a web-based platform healthcare providers can use to contact, schedule, and pay interpreters. The bill is a follow-up to 2021’s HB 2359, which requires healthcare providers to seek OHA-registered interpreters before seeking assistance from a language service provider (LSP). 

(Potential) Danger Ahead

The ATA’s letter pointed out that in 2021, Oregon recorded more than two million healthcare interpreting encounters for patients with limited English proficiency (LEP), in more than 150 languages. 

The state’s registry, however, includes interpreters for fewer than 40 languages, meaning that healthcare providers must turn to LSPs to fill in the gap with remote medical interpreters. 

“This requires a network and experience that the OHA simply cannot build overnight,” the ATA wrote. “Shifting the burden of providing this level of service to the state government without adequate resources could have devastating consequences.”

Among the ATA’s recommendations to improve the bill’s wording: consultation with a “broad coalition of […] interpreters, especially those for whom certification is not available.”

An amendment proposed on March 8, 2023, seems to take the ATA’s suggestion into account, requiring the OHA to convene an advisory group for feedback on the website.

Participants would include qualified or certified interpreters of spoken, indigenous, and sign languages, as well as individuals who use interpreting services in healthcare settings.   

The same amendment adds to the OHA’s responsibilities, administering programs intended to improve working conditions and opportunities among interpreters of indigenous languages and languages of lesser diffusion. 

More specifically, the programs will provide qualified interpreters of those languages financial assistance, to improve compensation, and will pay for training and the costs of applying for certification.