When Julio Perez, 29, received his prescription
painkiller drugs Hyprocodone and Motrin, the native Dominican had no way of
reading the English instructions. Still, he needed to treat the back and leg
pain he was still experiencing more than two years after injuring himself
working in a construction site.
"I knew it was a bad idea, but I didn’t know what else to
do," Perez explained in Spanish. "So I guessed."
When he began feeling dizzy, nauseous and his heart began pounding in
increasingly faster palpitations, he didn’t need any translation to know that
something was wrong.
"I didn’t think I was going to wake up the next morning,"
The push to make translations for prescription drugs more
widely available continued Monday, June 16, as Perez and other members of
immigrant advocacy groups testified at a City Council hearing, followed by a
noon press conference.
Along with the New York Immigration Coalition, community
organizing group Make the Road New York has filed a discrimination
complaint with the Attorney General Office against pharmacies which they say
fail to provide proper translation services.
The complaint was filed through New York Lawyers for the
Public Interest on July 26, 2007, on behalf of five limited English proficient
New Yorkers who said they were put at risk by medicines with English-only
"It’s simple," Council Member Joel Rivera (D-Bronx) told a
small crowd of about 20 reporters and public policy advocates. "We know
medicine taken properly can help you. Medicine taken improperly can kill you."
During the two hour City Council hearing, six Latinos from
Make the Road shared their difficulties with obtaining proper translations
primarily from CVS, RiteAid and Walgreens pharmacies.
"I am very afraid to take medications without knowing the
appropriate dosages so I depend on my 10 year old granddaughter to help me
translate the labels on my medication bottles," testified Make the Road member Maria Sanchez, 65. "This is a lot of responsibility for a 10
year old girl but usually I and others at the pharmacy have no choice but to
ask for help."
60 or so pharmacies are currently pending investigation
for failing to translate drug labels, as well as failing to provide other oral
or written translation services. This includes five CVS pharmacies, three Duane
Reades and seven Rite Aids.
According to a 2007 study by The New York Academy of
Medicine, out of 200 surveyed pharmacies, while 88 percent reported serving
limited-English proficient-patients daily, only 34 percent reported translating
labels daily. 26 percent reported never translating labels.
Currently, federal laws require hospitals, clinics,
nursing homes and Medicaid agencies to provide translation services to patients
who request them. The complaint filed by Make The Road argues that these laws, along
with state health regulations, should require pharmacies to provide better oral
and written translations for customers who speak little or no English.
The question of how, exactly, pharmacies should provide
these translations remains up in the air.
"When you have translation done by a company employee,
they want to be helpful, but there’s no doubt that there’s some information
that gets lost and some accountability," said Theo Oshiro, director of health advocacy for Make the Road.
According to an October 21, 2007 article published in The
New York Times, Walgreens says it currently provides labels in 14 languages,
while Rite Aid provides labels in 12 languages.
Walgreens and CVS also provide telephone interpretation
services. However, Council Member Rivera, who is also Chairman of the Council
Health Committee, said that this option was not a practical one for many
"It’s nine dollars a call," he said. "There’s other
advanced translation software that a pharmacy can purchase and develop."
Legislation requiring city pharmacies to provide better
translation services will most likely be voted on during the fall. Rivera said
the legislation would most likely mandate that pharmacies provide better
translation services both through telephone hotlines, translation services, as
well as recruiting more bilingual pharmacists.
"It can’t be too strict," he said. "There are changes in
technology, there are changes in demographics that you have to consider, so the
law would have to be flexible enough to accommodate these things."
Many also agreed that such a law would not only be in the
interest of the immigrant community.
"This is not just an immigrant issue," said Council Member
Christopher Gioia (D-Queens). "This is an issue that concerns all New Yorkers.
When you listen to someone say they don’t know whether they should rub an
ointment on a child or mix in juice and have them drink it, you know you’re
dealing with a very dangerous problem."