Virginia is home to speakers of many languages. However, the access to language services are inconsistent across the state varying from agency to agency. Without these consistencies, there are no statewide guidelines to ensuring limited English proficient (LEP) individuals can get access to the adequate services they need. According to Voices for Virginia’s Children:
Languages most often spoken by speakers with limited English proficiency in Virginia include Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 13166 requires recipients of federal financial assistance to take reasonable steps to make their programs, services, and activities accessible to individuals who are eligible with limited English proficiency.
In April 2021, the Virginia Department of Health published instructions for English-speaking readers stating the COVID-19 vaccine “will not be required for Virginians.” However, the Spanish-language translation conducted through a Google Translation widget stated, the COVID-19 vaccine, “no sera necesario,” or will not be necessary. Notably, Virginia may have further exacerbated disparities minority communities were already facing. While the public was encouraged to seek credible information, the state failed to ensure it was comprehensive to all.
During the 2021 special legislative session, $500,000 was included in the budget for a language access translation planning consulting services report, which highlighted 3 in 4 state agencies could not meet LEP speaker needs most of the time. These kinds of barriers have been exacerbated by the urgent needs of the pandemic, which makes an already lengthy process, such as getting access to unemployment in Virginia even lengthier for speakers who are LEP.
Three bills have been introduced during the Virginia General Assembly Session to increase language access and ensure every family is able to gain access to the information and services they need, including their health care options. Each bill focuses on supporting language access for the following areas:
In addition to language access, the medical debt bill includes critical provisions to ensure linguistically marginalized communities in Virginia (LMCs) understand their medical bills, know their rights to medical debt assistance, and receive essential information in-language.
SB 270 & HB 1049 notably establishes basic principles so that all Virginians are able to access state agency services feasibly; the legislation
Since 2006, at least 43 states have enacted law(s) addressing language access in healthcare settings. Virginia has the opportunity to join others and further lead.