QUESTION: The Department of Health and Human Services requires us to take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to Limited English Proficient (“LEP”) persons. Can we rely on a patient’s family members or friends to help with this?
ANSWER: No. The only exception is if it is an emergency or if the patient specifically requests otherwise. All entities that receive federal financial assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) are generally prohibited from requiring patients with limited English proficiency to use family members or friends as interpreters. HHS acknowledges in its regulatory guidance that there may be times when a patient feels more comfortable having a trusted friend or family member act as interpreter — under these circumstances, you can honor the request. However, you should consider factors such as competency, confidentiality, privacy, and/or conflicts of interest.
Your legal obligations will vary depending on the size of your organization and the patients you typically encounter. This area of the law is developing quickly and we expect to see more case law on this topic in the next few years. In the meantime, we encourage you to review your policies on this matter and have your lawyers assess whether you are in compliance with all federal regulatory obligations.