Washington hospitals often hang up on Spanish speakers seeking charity, survey finds

Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia received a letter from a Seattle nonprofit recently criticizing the way it handles calls from Spanish-speaking people seeking charity care.
Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia received a letter from a Seattle nonprofit recently criticizing the way it handles calls from Spanish-speaking people seeking charity care. Staff file, 2015

Spanish speakers frequently were hung up on when they sought charitable aid from Washington hospitals as part of a statewide survey conducted by a Seattle-based nonprofit organization.

Twelve of 20 hospitals contacted as part of the survey, including Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, received letters from Columbia Legal Services criticizing them for hanging up repeatedly, having no charity-care policies or providing low amounts of aid.

All but four of the hospitals surveyed hung up at least once on Spanish speakers calling about financial assistance, the survey found.

Columbia Legal Services conducted the survey as part of a campaign to increase access of charity care in Washington. That campaign also has included pushes for bills in the Legislature and a pending class-action lawsuit against Northwest Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle over collections practices.

The letter to Providence St. Peter cited “serious concerns” about an “abdication of its legal responsibility” to help people with limited English skills get equal access to health care. Two calls from Spanish speakers to the Olympia hospital inquiring about financial-assistance programs got nowhere, according to Columbia Legal Services, which provides legal assistance to under-served communities.

“Testers were abruptly disconnected as soon as they began speaking Spanish, absent any explanation,” the attorneys wrote. “This conduct violates federal and state law, and prevents persons in greatest need from obtaining critical information regarding health care.”

A Providence spokesman said Thursday the organization had not seen the report but has a policy of equal access and a nondiscrimination policy. The hospital provides multilingual instructions on its financial-assistance website and at the billing services line, 360-493-7256, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The Olympia hospital was the only one in the South Sound admonished in the report for how it handled the test callers.

In Tacoma, MultiCare’s Tacoma General Hospital was not sent a critical letter despite disconnecting one Spanish caller with a message that the interpreter had dropped the call, Columbia Legal Services attorneys said. The hospital directed another caller to an outreach center.

MultiCare spokeswoman Marce Edwards said the health care system makes its financial-assistance forms available in 15 languages on its billing website and provides interpreter services between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays at its customer service line, 253-876-8550.

CHI Franciscan’s St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma was not surveyed.

Ty Duhamel is an attorney with Columbia Legal Services’ Basic Human Needs Project.

Duhamel said the organization and researchers from the Equal Rights Center made random selections from the state’s health care providers to evaluate language accessibility in an effort to determine the availability of charity care. State law requires Washington hospitals to provide charity care to low-income patients.

The report says charity services provided by Washington hospitals fell from 3 percent of revenues in 2013 to less than 1 percent in 2015.

“Based on what we were hearing from advocates across the state, patients who are eligible for charity care didn’t seem to be getting charity care,” Duhamel said.

The survey also found that test calls in Spanish and English about financial assistance had disparate results: 90 percent of English-language callers got information compared with 28 percent of Spanish callers.

Only 10 percent of the Spanish test calls, conducted during business hours, were connected to an interpreter, the report says.

The report can be read in full at tinyurl.com/y9jhpotk.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally