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Medicare language help assailed

But 71% of Spanish speakers were able to get to interpreter

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Medicare prescription drug plans are only able to serve those with limited English proficiency in their primary language 55 percent of the time, according to a new report by a California-based advocacy group for low-income seniors.

Customer service representatives were often unable or unwilling to connect callers with interpreters, and some were rude, states a report by the National Senior Citizens Law Center.

"There were individuals calling customer service representatives who didn't understand the word 'China,"' said Kendra Nicole Scalia, the report's author.

Mike Fierberg, Denver regional spokesman for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the results were anecdotal, and it's "very hard to say or conclude this is the way most beneficiaries are treated."

He said the findings didn't take into account other factors such as community partners that can help those with limited English comprehension access the services they need.

"We make a sincere effort to reach out to all our beneficiaries regardless of the language spoken," Fierberg said. "That some are not getting the service they deserve is regrettable. We will work with all our plans to make sure reasonable rules are there to try to reach all our beneficiaries."

In the report, speakers of 11 non-English languages made 417 telephone calls to the Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan customer service representative, using English only to say the name of their language or associated country when requesting an interpreter.

Scalia pointed to some of the responses reported by volunteers as evidence for need of more federal oversight of the programs. She suggested better training of customer service representatives in how to recognize and transfer people to appropriate interpreters "will lead to being able to service more individuals."

Non-Spanish speakers fared worse, receiving service in their primary language only 37 percent of the time, the report found.

Spanish speakers were able to successfully reach someone who spoke their language 71 percent of the time, compared to a 5 percent success rate among Hmong callers.

Some of those responses included:

An operator had asked a Hmong caller why call if you don't speak English, then "told me to get a pen and spelled C-A-L-L B-A-C-K."

A Lao caller reached a representative who attempted to respond in Spanish, then transferred the call to a Spanish-speaking operator.

One Mandarin caller reported, "The live operator kept asking, 'Do you want to speak to someone named China?"'

While there are marketing requirements for plans to be able to reach out to beneficiaries, there are practical limitations to what a plan can do to reach out, said Fierberg.

The success rate for Spanish-speaking beneficiaries who comprise "by far the highest" percentage of those who don't speak English suggests, "it's not nearly as bad as the report would make it seem."

He pointed out that 62 calls were made in Hmong, compared to 42 in Spanish.

"In California the number of Spanish speaking people is roughly 60 times as large as the number of Hmong speakers," he said. "The percentages of success are not an appropriate indicator of how well typical English limited beneficiaries" are served.

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com