Proposed SPEAK Act on Telehealth Access Seeks Input from Language Industry

SPEAK Act on Telehealth Access

A newly introduced bill to improve access to telehealth services for Americans with limited English proficiency (LEP) calls for language industry professionals and organizations to share their insights and experience.

Rep. Michelle Steel (R-CA) introduced the Supporting Patient Education and Knowledge (SPEAK) Act on October 24, 2023. The bill has bipartisan support from 15 cosponsors, among them 11 Democrats and four Republicans from Alabama, Arizona, California, Texas, New York, and Nevada.

The SPEAK Act would require the Secretary of Human Health and Services (HHS) to convene a task force to improve access to telehealth services for Americans with LEP.

The Task Force members would include representatives from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology; the Health Resources and Services Administration; the Office of Minority Health; healthcare insurance companies; and providers of health information technology services, such as electronic medical records. 

Notably, the roster of participant categories also includes language service providers; interpreter and translator professional associations; health and language service quality certification organizations; and patient and consumer advocates, especially those with experience working directly with LEP populations.

The Association of Language Companies (ALC) reported the bill’s introduction in a November 2, 2023 newsletter, calling the SPEAK Act “significant for two reasons. First, it keeps us moving toward the long-range goal of making language access reimbursable under federal and private insurance. Second, the bill requires that the task force have language industry representation alongside linguists, patient advocacy groups, and other key stakeholders.” 

If enacted, the SPEAK Act would require the Secretary of HHS to issue a request for information from healthcare providers, insurance plans, and “other relevant parties” to identify and understand the barriers preventing LEP patients from accessing telehealth services. 

The Task Force would then use those responses to discuss and formulate recommendations and best practices on expanding access to telehealth for LEP patients. 

In particular, the Task Force would consider optimal designs of telehealth that promote LEP access, especially for users with additional barriers, such as a rural location or communications-related disabilities. Also on the table would be the question of how best to integrate telehealth platforms and language services, including remote simultaneous interpreting. 

The Task Force would submit two reports to Congress: the first, a year after the bill’s enactment, outlining the Task Force’s progress; the second, two years after enactment, to detail the results of the Task Force’s assessment and the group’s final recommendations and best practices. 

Since its introduction, the bill has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which oversees the cabinet-level Department of Health and Human Services. 

But it looks like the road to enactment may be a long one, as ALC currently plans to advocate for the bill at its annual ALC On the Hill trip to Washington, DC on February 29, 2024.