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Know Your Rights
Source: NYS Attorney General
Subject: Language Access
Type: Media Coverage

Cuomo Announces Agreements with Two of the Nation’s Largest Pharmacies to Provide Customers with Prescription Medication Instructions in Their Primary Language

Inability to Understand Vital Prescription Medication Information Has Harmed New Yorkers and Puts Thousands at Risk.  After Cuomo’s Undercover Investigation, CVS and Rite Aid Will Provide Free Language Services, Helping Over 1 Million New Yorkers.

Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that two of the largest pharmacy chains in the United States – CVS and Rite Aid – have entered into agreements with his office to provide New York customers with prescription medication instructions in their primary language.  With these agreements, CVS and Rite Aid, which also owns Eckerd and Genovese pharmacies, will counsel all pharmacy customers about prescription information in their own language and provide written translations in Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, French, and Polish. 

Attorney General Cuomo initiated an undercover investigation into the policies and procedures of pharmacies after receiving and reviewing complaints that pharmacies routinely fail to advise non-English speaking customers in a language that allows them to understand the purpose, dosage, and side-effects of their medications.  New York law requires pharmacists to personally provide information about prescription drugs to all patients, orally and in writing, and prohibits pharmacies from conducting business in a way that discriminates against non-English speakers.  According to census data, over one million New Yorkers do not speak English well or at all.

"Understanding prescription information is a matter of life and death," said Attorney General Cuomo.  "Our state has always been proud to be the home to people from all throughout the world.  We need to make sure that all New Yorkers can read and understand the vital information about their medications, regardless of whether English is their first language.  CVS and Rite Aid have taken important steps to ensure that customers receive proper assistance in understanding their medication, and my office’s investigation into the practices of other pharmacies continues."

The health and safety of New Yorkers are put at risk when they are unable to comprehend the instructions for using their medication.  Non-English speaking New Yorkers have experienced allergic reactions, adverse side effects, and other health problems due to their inability to understand medical instructions, and in some instances, have refrained from taking medication at all.

The agreements with the Attorney General, which affect more than 2,000 stores statewide, require the pharmacies to:

  • Identify whether a customer needs assistance in understanding their prescription medication
  • Inform customers of their right to free assistance in reading and understanding their prescription medication
  • Provide prescription labels and directions regarding dosage and safety information in the six languages that are spoken by more than one percent of the population of New York
  • Provide additional assistance in all languages through a service called Language Line
  • Ensure that pharmacy staff counsel customers about their prescription medication in the customer’s own language

Andrew Friedman, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York said, "I applaud the Attorney General for taking this matter seriously and continuing to protect New Yorkers.  Not only does the law require pharmacies to provide interpretation and translation services, but as a practical matter, you cannot take care of people if you cannot communicate with them.  Pharmacies must provide language access for prescription medications to prevent harm to patients."

Nisha Agarwal, Staff Attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest said, "Whether a person understands the purpose of their prescription medication can be a life or death issue.  I am grateful to the Attorney General’s Office for taking the lead on this vital public health issue and requiring pharmacies to counsel and communicate with customers in the customer’s language.  These agreements will help protect the health and well-being of these hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who speak languages other than English."

Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D., President of the Institute of Medicine said, "I applaud these agreements as an important step forward in ensuring safer use of medication.  As many as 168 million of the 4 billion prescriptions written each year could be going to patients who are not able to fully understand the information provided.  As a result, hundreds of thousands of people are put at risk each year for medication error.  The agreements between Attorney General Cuomo and the pharmacies requiring appropriate language services for customers should drastically reduce that number in New York."

The Attorney General’s office received complaints about the practices of New York pharmacies from the non-profit organization Make the Road New York.  The office is continuing its investigation. 

The cases are being handled by Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice James Rogers, Deputy Bureau Chief for Civil Rights Alphonso B. David, and Counsel for Civil Rights Spencer Freedman.