In California, Interpreters Campaign Against Insurers Trying to Undercut Fees

A group of professional interpreters in California has intensified its fight against a provision in the state’s Labor Code that allows insurance companies or even doctors, lawyers, and judges to tap the services of “provisionally certified interpreters” if certified legal and medical interpreters are not available.

The California Workers’ Compensation Interpreters Association (CWCIA), founded in 2000 to advocate for the rights and interests of interpreters, is at the forefront of this advocacy.

Under California laws, an injured employee who does not proficiently speak or understand the English language is entitled to the services of a qualified interpreter during medical appointments.

Provisionally Certified

The issue stems from the amendment to the Labor Code introduced in 2013, which aims to introduce reforms related to workers’ compensation. The new provision in the law specifies that to qualify to work as a medical or legal interpreter, the person must either be certified by the state or “provisionally certified” by persons in authority handling a worker’s case, such as the claims administrator, insurance company, physician or lawyer.

Lorena Ortiz Schneider, CEO of Ortiz Schneider Interpreting & Translation, told Slator the DIR-DWC’s definition of “provisionally certified interpreters” has been abused by insurers to give preferential treatment to non-certified interpreters. This, she says, undercuts fees for certified professionals.

Ortiz Schneider added that since insurance firms usually pay for the expenses of an injured worker, these companies have set up networks of preferred vendors. Professionals working outside this network often end up being underpaid or not paid at all for their services.  

In an appeal submitted to the DIR-DWC in May 2016, the CWCIA claimed that tapping the services of lay or “standard” interpreters undercuts the current market fees that certified professionals command by up to 50%.

Improper Cost Incentive

“This creates an improper cost incentive for the claims administrator, whose decision to “provisionally certify” an individual is likely to be price driven, not quality driven. When decisions are made this way, professional interpreters are driven out of the field,” the CWCIA insisted.

Schneider said that to be a certified medical and legal interpreter in California, one must take  one of the two national certification bodies in the US: the National Board for the Certification of Medical Interpreters or the Certification Commission for Health Care Interpreters (CCHI).  Certified interpreters are also listed on the State Personnel Board or the California Courts.

The CWCIA is advocating that to ensure a minimum level of competency, concerned parties should tap into the Registry of Candidates maintained by the Commission for the Certification of Health Care Interpreters (CCHI) as a source of provisionally certified medical interpreters.

“These individuals meet established prerequisites. CCHI has offered to make this Registry available to the State of California to identify the status of provisionally qualified interpreters,” the CWCIA appeal further stated.

Taken to Court

Earlier this year, the organization had also taken the DIR-DWC to court over new procedures for claiming payments for interpretation services. Slator reported on May 12, 2017,  that CWCIA lost its bid to challenge the law, but the organization got pointers from the court on how they could collect payment.

When Senate Bill 863 was signed into law in September 2012 overhauling the California workers’ compensation system to introduce cost savings and deliver increased benefits to injured workers faster, the interpreter community should have braced for rough sailing.

The tightened procedures for filing claims or qualifying for paid work as an interpreter are part of a broad initiative that the state is undertaking to cut cost.