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D.C. Pharmacies A Quagmire For Non-English Speakers

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Reading prescription bottles is trouble enough for those who don't speak English. Purchasing them can be even harder.
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Reading prescription bottles is trouble enough for those who don't speak English. Purchasing them can be even harder.

For those who don't speak English, getting help at a D.C. pharmacy might be very difficult. That's the upshot of a report called Prescription for Inequity. The report claims even when language assistance was offered at local pharmacies, it was usually inadequate.

Tester Frank Tchokeu says when he pretended to speak only French while seeking help in D.C. pharmacies, the outcome was painful.

"Sometimes they would say, 'You don't have someone who speaks English with you?' And when I said no they said, Sorry,'" Tchokeu says.

Language barriers prove significant

The outcome was equally dismal for half of the testers who visited 89 local pharmacies and pretended to speak only Amharic, Chinese, Korean, Serbian or Spanish.

Sapna Pundya is with Many Languages, One Voice, the group behind the report. She says 70 additional pharmacies were called and again about half of the time ran into resistance.

"Either over the phone or in person they were literally laughed at or ignored or told to just speak English," Pundya says.

Even when pharmacy workers were sympathetic, the foreign language assistance provided was inadequate. Hiep Le, a Senior citizen speaking through an interpreter, says medicine bottles can be bewildering and sometimes drugs have to be identified by the pills shape or color.

"Most of the medications never put anything in Vietnamese and therefore it is very difficult for us to read the warning on the label," Hiep says.

Bridging language gap, minimizing cost

Pundya offers a solution that doesn't involve forcing pharmacies to staff up.

"What we are suggesting is that there are a few different companies that provide over the phone interpretation services and the DC government already contracts with one such company," Pundya says.

She says a similar law passed in New York averages a cost of $2 a day per location per customer.

Leila Higgins is an activist with the American University College of Law and says the same federal mandate that obliges the District government to provide language services applies to some pharmacies.

"Pharmacies that accept Medicare and Medicaid, which are federally-funded programs, they have sort of engaged in a contract with the federal government to abide by the Civil Rights Act," Higgins says.

Councilmember Jim Graham represents Ward 1, the most ethnically-diverse in the District. He's drafting legislation that would provide interpetration services at all D.C. pharmacies and require labeling in appropriate languages and in an easily readable font size as well as training for pharmacy staff.

The bill will be introduced on April 30.

WAMU is licensed to American University

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