Health agency adds two interpreters

September 23, 2005|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,sun reporter

THE DEPARTMENT NOW HAS EIGHT EMPLOYEES — The Howard County Health Department has added two full-time Spanish-speaking interpreters to its staff, an addition that reflects how quickly the area's foreign-born population is growing.

The department now has eight employees - six Spanish-speakers and two Korean-speakers - whose roles include interpretation. The department also hires interpreters from the nonprofit organization FIRN, the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, for as many as 300 hours a month and uses an AT&T translation service to serve clients who speak languages uncommon in the county.

"I've been in this department for 4 1/2 years, and I would say that throughout my tenure, we've become increasingly aware of the unfettered growth" of the foreign-born population, said Penny Borenstein, director of the county's Health Department. "It has really crept up on us in a few years - we are being hard-pressed to keep up with the demand."

In 1980, Howard was home to 5,336 foreign-born people; by 2004, that number had grown to 29,900, according to the most recent census data. Roy Appletree, director of FIRN, said that between 1990 and 2004, foreign-born residents accounted for 29 percent of the population growth in the county.

The Health Department's growing need for interpretation services is driven in part by its commitment to helping immigrants, Appletree said.

"They've been more responsive than any other health department in the state," he said.

In addition, a state anti-discrimination law that requires health providers to offer patients professional interpreters as a matter of equal access was passed in 2002, and a similar federal law has been enforced more actively in recent years, Appletree said.

But providers do not get additional governmental funding for interpretation services.

"There's a budgetary pressure that comes to bear from this increasing demand," Borenstein said.

The Health Department spends 5.5 percent of its state funding - or about $110,000 - on interpretation services from outside the department. The department's overall budget is $13 million.

While translation services are costly, failing to offer them to medical patients can have serious consequences, Appletree said.

"When you don't provide interpreters, it leads to incorrect or delayed diagnoses or there are unnecessary tests. People will fail to purchase prescriptions. Or, particularly dangerous, is not being able to take a prescription correctly," he said.

On a recent morning, Angela Lowe, a community outreach worker at the Health Department, picked up Sara Avila, 49, at her home and drove her to an appointment for a mammogram. She helped Avila fill out forms.

The appointment took about 15 minutes, but Avila, a Mexican immigrant, said she could not have done it without help.

"I don't speak English; I don't have transportation," she said in Spanish. "If I didn't have a person like Angela, I couldn't go to this appointment."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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