The Central Virginian

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Minding the language gap

Posted on Monday, October 7, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Understanding the Affordable Care Act has been a challenge for everyone, governors, state lawmakers and agency officials. But one of the biggest challenges will be delivering the message to America’s non-English speaking citizens.

The U.S. Census estimates that more than 55 million people speak a language other than English at home. The vast majority of those — nearly 63 percent — are Spanish speakers. Chinese is the third most commonly spoken language. Five other languages with at least 1 million speakers are Tagalog (from the Philippines), French, Vietnamese, German and Korean.

Even East Tennessee, not necessarily known as the melting pot of the nation, has wide diversity in terms of languages spoken at home.
English-speakers are the overwhelming majority: 29,979 in Claiborne, 32,582 in Cocke, 20,844 in Grainger, 62,422 in Greene, 52,361 in Hamblen, 6,302 in Hancock, 52,243 in Hawkins and 46,622 in Jefferson.

As with the national numbers, Spanish-speakers make up the majority of non-English speakers in the Lakeway Area:
• 153 of Claiborne County’s 437 non-English speakers
• 653 of Cocke County’s 954 non-English speakers
• 350 of Grainger County’s 404 non-English speakers
• 1,853 of Greene County’s 2,523 non-English speakers
• 5,257 of Hamblen County’s 6,053 non-English speakers
• 49 of Hancock County’s 93 non-English speakers
• 919 of Hawkins County’s 1,279 non-English speakers
• 1,298 of Jefferson County’s 1,556 non-English speakers

According to the U.S. Census report, “2007-2011 American Community Survey Five-Year Estimates,” a surprising number of other languages are spoken in homes around the eight-county area, including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindu, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Native North American, Polish,

Portuguese, Russian, Scandinavian, Tagalog, Vietnamese and other Asian, Germanic, Indic, Indo-European, Pacific and Slavic languages.

The census data shows that these non-English speakers have varying abilities to speak English “very well.”

In certain parts of the country, many of the individuals who will be eligible for federal subsidies in the health care exchange will be people of color or those whose English is limited.
For example, a study by the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center, report that the success of health care reform “hinges in large part in how well the state conducts culturally and linguistically competent outreach and enrollment efforts.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, organizations that receive federal funding have to provide written notices in English, Spanish and other languages spoken by 5 percent of the population or 1,000 people, whichever is less.

The Health Care Marketplace, which officially opened on Oct. 1, offers information in Chinese, French Creole, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, but individuals did not have the ability to sign up online in their language on the opening day.

Several days before the system went live, HHS announced that the Spanish-language version of the website would not be ready to handle online enrollments for a few weeks — something that was estimated to affect 10 million Latinos, nearly half of whom are primarily Spanish-speaking.

At that time, Jennifer Ng’andu, health care policy director for the National Council of La Raza, said, “It’s been at least two years since we’ve known that Latinos are a primary target for enrollment through the ACA, so we would have hoped that the administration would have the rollout ready on day 1.”

She added, though, that her group wouldn’t object if it took a few more weeks to get things right.

If the nation’s Hispanic speakers — the largest minority group in the nation — won’t have access to online enrollment for some time, the lesser minority groups may have to wait even longer. provided a toll-free number 1-800-318-2596 for all individuals requesting additional information about the Health Care Marketplace.