Celebrating Our Heritage By Ensuring Health Equity for Our Future

This year, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which has helped 16 million people move one step closer to living healthy lives. Yet, it would be wrong to think the fight for health equity is over. It is just beginning. During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we applaud President Obama and his administration for their landmark achievements in health care access, and ask that we don't stop now.

Immigration status now stands as the major social determinant impacting whether or not a person has coverage, and thus, whether they can see a doctor when they get sick. For every story like Hoang's, a New Orleans fisherman who went uninsured for 30 years prior to getting covered thanks to the ACA, there are many more that do not end as well. During Hoang's first doctor's visit after getting covered, he learned he has Hepatitis B, an infection that can be fatal if not treated. Hoang's life was saved by his insurance. Now, imagine if Hoang was one of the millions of other immigrants who are locked out of affordable health programs.

The President's executive actions, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) were supposed to bring relief to the millions of immigrants fearing deportation. Unfortunately, these programs are partially tied up in the courts. One area the President can make an immediate difference with the swipe of his pen is by finishing the job and ensuring that the same people accessing these programs can also access the health care they need and that their tax dollars support.

Young adults and parents in the DACA and DAPA programs are locked out of ACA coverage, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). These people are working hard in college and building their communities, but are excluded simply because of politics. They pay into our system, but cannot use the resources to get help when they fall on hard times. While we support efforts in Congress to fix this inequity though the HEAL Act, these programs were established through executive action from the President. President Obama has the authority to remove these barriers and should.

Meanwhile, for communities that speak languages other than English, having an insurance card isn't enough. If someone cannot read or understand English sufficiently, they may have real trouble accessing and understanding the available information, from a diagnosis to a prescription.

Part of eliminating health disparities is ensuring that all people can access health care, which is why the Office of Minority Health developed CLAS Standards to help combat disparities. The standards provide a robust roadmap for how to improve care for our nation's increasingly diverse population. One way these standards can live up to their potential is by enforcing civil rights protections established through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ACA. The federal government should take steps to fully adopt and implement the CLAS standards, including language access, across the country as part of the civil rights protections in the ACA.

Along with federal protections for language access, we also need to coordinate and ensure that the health insurance marketplaces and insurance companies provide translated materials and interpretation services for people who cannot speak or understand English. My organization is a member of Action for Health Justice (AHJ), a national collaborative of more than 70 organizations that works across the country to help AAs and NHPIs get educated on and enroll in health insurance. During the most recent open enrollment period, AHJ worked in 22 states in more than 40 languages. Navigators, community health centers, and other assisters working on the ground helped people like Hoang get enrolled in health insurance. Hoang speaks limited English and needed a Vietnamese interpreter from MQVN to help with his enrollment paperwork. Without this in-language assistance, he might still be uninsured.

As we look toward the next open enrollment period and beyond, it is crucial that we make language access a priority. One way to support this effort is for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a language access coordinator whose primary duty would be to ensure real access for people who do not speak English very well or need a translator. Doing so would increase compliance with civil rights laws and help ensure every community realizes the dream of the ACA.

We still have work to do to fulfill our goal of health care and coverage for every community. We must remove the barriers to care for immigrants, who despite paying into our system, are locked out of affordable health programs. We must also enforce federal protections for language access so that no matter what language you speak, you can access the information you need. Over the next year, we will dedicate ourselves to these goals.

And we ask President Obama to do the same.