April 5, 2012
Drug Rule Breaks Language Barrier
ALBANY — Hoping to avoid medical mix-ups, the state will require pharmacies to provide customers with information about the drugs they're taking in their own language.
The law was passed last week as part of the state's $132.6 billion budget. It requires any pharmacy chain with eight or more stores in the state to provide written materials, as well as some translation service for customers.
"The bottom line is that this provides critical services for people with limited English proficiency, and in many instances we're talking about life or death," said Alphonso David, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's deputy secretary for civil rights.
A 2008 report by Make the Road NY documented several instances in which immigrants not proficient in English suffered side effects or were rebuffed seeking explanations about prescribed medication. Then-Attorney General Cuomo threatened suit against pharmacy chains until they agreed to reform.
Most of the state's biggest chains — including CVS, Rite-Aid, Target and Wal-Mart — already provide the services, usually via telephone.
The new law would require simultaneous translation services in the top seven languages spoken by at least 1 percent of the residents of any metropolitan region, as determined by the U.S. Census. In the Capital Region, those languages are English and Spanish, according to Rocky Ferraro of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.
But pharmacists question whether the mandate is necessary or effective, particularly upstate.
"One of our board members said he's never seen it used. It's a very expensive thing to do," said Craig Burridge, executive director of the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York.
Pharmacists can't understand what translators are telling customers about a drug, but remain liable for any side effects based on their relayed instructions, Burridge said. A mistake could result in punishment such as the loss of a license.
He instead recommended pharmacists adopt recognizable symbols agreed to by a national industry standards group. But lawmakers rebuffed the idea.
"This was basically jammed down our throats. We'll see what happens when the first lawsuit happens," Burridge said.
At least 300 chain pharmacies would be affected by the new provisions, which take effect in March 2013, David said.
"You have the option: In some instances you'll have pharmacies with someone on staff; others will use telephonic services," he said. "There are currently third-party vendors that provide these services at a fairly reasonable price."
Last year, Cuomo announced citizens could access telephone translation services in their dealings with state agencies in Spanish, Italian, Russian, French, French Creole and Mandarin Chinese.
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