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Hirono, Casey, Harris, Colleagues Introduce Coronavirus Language Access Act

Bill helps make COVID-19 resources accessible to LEP individuals, individuals with disabilities, older Americans

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senators Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and other colleagues introduced the Coronavirus Language Access Act, which expands access to coronavirus-related resources by increasing language access services and supporting culturally appropriate COVID-19 response programs to help older Americans, those who have limited English proficiency (LEP), and people with disabilities.

The pandemic has magnified language access issues and disparities in health care, as more than 25 million people in the United States have limited English proficiency—15 percent of whom are age 65 or older. For many limited English proficient individuals, their work on the front lines of the pandemic response leaves them more vulnerable and subject to greater risks of contracting COVID-19.

The Coronavirus Language Access Act would:

• Require federal agencies receiving COVID-19 funding to provide translated materials for COVID-19-related programs and opportunities within 7 business days after the English version is available. 

• Require federal agencies receiving COVID-19 funding to provide oral language assistance services for COVID-19-related programs and opportunities.

• Require the head of every federal agency affected by the bill to submit a report about its compliance with the requirements of the bill to the relevant congressional Committees.

• Provide $200 million for coronavirus-related language access services – $150 million of which must be for state (including DC), Tribal, and territorial health departments and community-based organizations to support culturally appropriate coronavirus response programs.

• Require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create a coronavirus informational hotline with trained interpreters that provides COVID-19 information to the public.

• Require CDC to provide translated materials relating to COVID-19 screening, testing, treatment, and educational information to state (including DC), Tribal, and territorial agencies.

• Provide $20 million to states for Area Agencies on Aging and $10 million to states for Statewide Independent Living Councils to support older LEP individuals and LEP individuals with disabilities, respectively, in accessing COVID-19 information through partnerships with community-based organizations.

“Coronavirus cases in the United States have topped five million infections, and the devastation caused by the pandemic has reached every corner of our country. We must do more so that all communities – regardless of English proficiency, age, or disability – have access to the federal government’s coronavirus-related services and resources in culturally appropriate and understandable ways,” Senator Hirono said.

“The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many obstacles and disparities in our health care system, including language barriers,” said Senator Baldwin. “Our legislation will require the federal government to deploy culturally-appropriate coronavirus-related information and resources that are accessible for everyone, regardless of their primary language.”

“This bill makes vital COVID-19 information accessible to countless Americans who face obstacles of age, disability, or language fluency. It provides language assistance and translation services so that lifesaving facts are available to everyone. While physical distancing is essential, information distancing or isolation can be devastating,” Senator Blumenthal said.

“For too many Nevadans coronavirus-related resources like testing information, and basic updates about how to keep families safe aren’t available in their native languages,” said Senator Cortez Masto. “I’m proud to cosponsor legislation that will require federal agencies to provide accessible, translated materials for millions of hardworking Americans with disabilities or limited English proficiency, many of whom are frontline workers. Every Nevadan should be able to easily access everything from coronavirus prevention tips to information about relief programs.” 

“Ensuring that individuals with disabilities and those with Limited English Proficiency have equal access to accurate, culturally appropriate, up-to-date and easily understandable information regarding federal programs, health information and services available to them is common sense, period. Amid a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, when emergencies are more likely, we must uphold our commitment to civil rights by ensuring all communities have equal access to information to prevent further spread of the virus,” said Senator Brown.

“We cannot overcome this crisis until we can speak to all Americans. At the beginning of the pandemic, I launched a portal on my website with information and assistance in different languages so that all Nevadans can access the resources they need as we navigate COVID-19. But the federal government must work harder to communicate with the nearly 25 million Americans who have limited English proficiency,” Senator Rosen said. “This legislation will ensure that coronavirus-related information, services, and relief programs are clear and accessible to all. By ensuring that all Americans have access to these much-needed resources, we can help stop the spread of coronavirus in our communities and put workers and families on the road to recovery.”

“We’ve seen that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the existing disparities in our public health system. Given that communities of color have been particularly hard-hit by this crisis, we need to make sure that language is no barrier to seeking and accessing care and resources related to COVID-19,” said Senator Warner. 

“We cannot expect to end this pandemic if 25 million American s who are Limited English Proficient cannot meaningfully communicate with their health care provider or receive lifesaving public health information about COVID-19,” said Juliet K. Choi, Executive Vice President at the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum. “This badly-needed legislation would address language barriers and systemic inequities by ensuring federal agencies provide translation and interpretation services, as well as provide funding to state health departments and community based organizations. We especially applaud the leadership of Senators Hirono, Casey and Harris for championing this Coronavirus Language Access Act.” 

“UnidosUS is proud to support the Coronavirus Language Access Act and we thank Sens. Hirono, Casey, and Harris for their leadership in introducing this vital health equity legislation. The bill makes critical investments, including by targeting resources to trusted community-based organizations which sensitively and effectively provide services in their diverse communities. Language access is an issue that has long been a priority for UnidosUS and during a pandemic it is particularly important that the tens of millions of Americans who speak a language other than English have the information and resources they need to stay safe and healthy,” said Eric Rodriguez, Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, UnidosUS.

“Older adults who are immigrants have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the hardest to reach. This legislation takes important and practical steps to ensure that everyone in our communities has the vital information and resources we all need to protect ourselves and our families,” said Kevin Prindiville, Executive Director of Justice in Aging.

“DREDF knows that LEP communities have faced many of the same communication and information barriers that have confronted Deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind and other persons with disabilities seeking COVID-19 testing and treatment. Every person in our country has been affected by this virus and we must give everyone the equal chance to understand how to avoid, fight, and recover physically and economically from it,” said Silvia Yee, senior staff attorney at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF).

“Use of our native languages in accessing health care and resources, especially during these times, is a step in uplifting and empowering Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities in Hawaii and across the country. Papa Ola Lokahi strongly supports the efforts of Senator Hirono and her colleagues Senators Casey & Harris in standing up for the rights of our Native peoples. E Ola Ka Olelo Hawaii!” said Dr. Sheri-Ann Daniels, Executive Director of Papa Ola Lokahi.

"The Legal Clinic is tremendously grateful for the steadfast leadership and care that our Senator Hirono, the only immigrant in the Senate, has demonstrated in filing the Coronavirus Language Access Act. This bill would ensure that those with Limited English Proficiency, many of whom are kupuna (seniors), receive the critical public health information they need to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19. With the recent spike in cases in our state and the disproportionate impact the virus has had on Pacific Islanders, especially Micronesian communities, it is imperative that every effort is made to get translated materials into the hands of trusted community leaders for further distribution and that resources are allocated to culturally-appropriate health services. We strongly urge the Senate to pass this measure and protect all people, regardless of language ability, from the deadly threat of this virus," said Amy Agbayani and Liza Ryan Gill, Advocacy Committee of The Legal Clinic Hawaii.  

“One of the most powerful ways to understand the needs of our 70,000 Medicaid members is through their own language. Navigating the coronavirus means community health plans like AlohaCare having access to culturally appropriate coronavirus-related informational materials. We commend Senators Hirono, Casey, and Harris for introducing the Coronavirus Language Access Act to provide our members and the communities we serve with essential information, services, and relief programs to meet Hawaii’s urgent needs during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Francoise Culley-Trotman, Interim Chief Executive Officer of AlohaCare.

“It is critical for the federal government to ensure that LEP individuals have access to culturally appropriate coronavirus-related informational materials, including in written and verbal formats. For our island, Lanai, an island comprised of many immigrants, we are seeing first-hand how important use of culturally appropriate information material is to reaching various community members. All you have to do is look at the location of positive clusters – and you can clearly see there is a relationship between different cultures understanding of the virus. With this Act, we have an opportunity to address this issue and decrease exposure to the virus,” said Dr. Diana M V Shaw, Executive Director of Lanai Community Health Center.

"Language accessibility is important to ensure that everyone can understand and take advantage of the programs that the federal government has made available to the public, particularly as COVID-19 cases continue to mount. Maui Economic Opportunity touches more than 58,000 lives through various programs for early education, youth services, underserved families, entrepreneurship and business development, the incarcerated, specialized transportation, senior groups, and so many others, and additional resources properly translated into multiple languages would help us more effectively serve those in the community who need the help,” said Debbie Cabebe, Chief Executive Officer of Maui Economic Opportunity, Inc.

“The ongoing COVID-19 case surge in Hawaii underscores the critically urgent need for providing translated informational materials, language-specific hotlines, and other language access services to help curb the pandemic. Pacific Islanders have seen a dramatic rise in transmission rates in recent weeks. Over 10% of Hawaii’s population is limited English proficient, with a large number of residents born outside of the U.S. Lack of reliable science-based information in their original language places their households, their neighborhoods, and the larger community at increased risk of COVID-19 transmission. As such, the Coronavirus Language Access Act is a life-affirming response to a life-threatening pandemic that has already hit underserved populations particularly hard in Hawaii and across the nation,” said Heather Lusk, Executive Director of Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center.

In addition to Senators Hirono, Casey, and Harris, the bill was also cosponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.).

The Coronavirus Language Access Act is supported by more than 160 national and local organizations, including the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum; Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC; UnidosUS; NAACP; National Immigration Law Center (NILC); Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF); Families USA; Justice in Aging National Association of State Long Term Care Ombudsman Programs; GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality; Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP); Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Tahirih Justice Center, AlohaCare, Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center, Hep Free Hawaii, Lanai Community Health Center, Maui Economic Opportunity, Inc., NH&PI Hawaii COVID19 3R Team, Papa Ola Lokahi, and The Legal Clinic Hawaii. Click here to see the full list of supporting organizations.