Make the Road New York Wins Pharmaceutical Language Access Fight in NYC

Thanks to compelling stories ((“Bad Medicine: How New York area pharmacies’ failure to provide translation and interpretation service prevents immigrant New Yorkers from receiving quality medical care and stands in clear violation of local, state and federal law,” Make the Road New York and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, October, 2007, http://www.maketheroad.org/report.php?ID=437)) from members of Make the Road New York (MRNY), strong relationships with decision makers and key community partners, and good old fashioned direct action, chain pharmacies in New York City will now translate the purpose, dosage, and side-effect information for all medications prescribed to limited and non-English speakers. This means that the major pharmacy chains like CVS, Duane Reade, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, CVS, Pathmark, Target and Costco will now provide translation of medicine into Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, French, and, in some places, Polish.

The Campaign

Protesters with signs

Medicine Without Translation = Dangerous Medicine

After reaching agreements with New York City hospitals to improve language access ((“What We Do: Promoting Health for All New Yorkers,” Make the Road New York, http://www.maketheroad.org/whatwedo_health.php)), MRNY members recognized the real danger of not being properly informed about their medication. They began a campaign to hold pharmacies accountable to federal civil rights law that already require health care institutions to provide translation services. Armed with personal stories and a 2007 New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) ((Weiss L, et al, “Access to multilingual medication instructions at New York City pharmacies,” Journal of Urban Health, 2007 Nov;84(6):742-54, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17926130)) report that documented the non-compliance of most chain pharmacies in the city, MRNY joined New York Lawyers for the Public Interest to file a landmark complaint against the pharmacy chains with the New York State Attorney General.

Make the Road New York press conferenceThe Attorney General responded to the complaint and public pressure ((Anne Barnard, “Non-English Speakers Charge Bias in Prescription Labeling,” New York Times, October 31, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/nyregion/31pharmacies.html)) by interviewing affected MRNY members, and building a case against the chains (while all pharmacies, including the smaller “mom and pop” businesses need to provide translation, the personal stories and the NYAM report found that it was overwhelmingly the larger chains that were failing their non-English speaking customers).

Leaders also took the streets in press conferences, public hearings, ((“Immigrants to Flood City Council Oversight Hearing About Dangerous Lack of Translation Services at Pharmacies,” Make the Road New York, June 12, 2008, http://www.maketheroad.org/article.php?ID=600)) and protests to raise public awareness of the problem and, in one case, to refocus the attention of the AG’s office. The media attention ((Anne Barnard, “Non-English Speakers Charge Bias in Prescription Labeling,” New York Times, October 31, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/nyregion/31pharmacies.html)) from these events were key to maintaining the attention of the public and, of course, decision makers ((New York Senator John D. Sabini, “English-Only Prescriptions Are a Threat to Public Health,” http://www.maketheroad.org/article.php?ID=578)) at the local and state level.

Victory for New Yorkers!

In April of 2009, the Attorney General announced landmark settlements ((“MRNY Wins Major Victory as State Attorney General Orders New York Pharmacy Chains to End Discrimination in Response to Our Landmark Civil Rights Complaint,” Make the Road New York, April 22, 2009, http://www.maketheroad.org/article.php?ID=859)) with New York State’s largest pharmacy chains. Each signed comprehensive action agreements ((“Is Your Pharmacy In Compliance With The Law?,” New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Make the Road New York, http://www.nylpi.org/images/FE/chain234siteType8/site203/client/OAG%20Agreements%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf)) with the AG’s office requiring them to provide interpretation and translation services for millions of New Yorkers.

The New York City council also responded to the needs of non-English speakers, passing legislation ((Noah Rosenberg, “AG and Council prescribe pharmacy translation services,” Queens Courier, http://www.maketheroad.org/article.php?ID=889)) that guarantees interpreter services and translated medication labels in all New York City pharmacies.

Building on the Win

Make the Road's logoThe next step in the campaign is to codify the settlement made by the AG’s office into state law. Already, MRNY is working with state legislators who have been inspired by the work done in New York City, and recognize that non-English speakers across the state face the same danger of not understanding their medication. The two demands for statewide legislation are:

  1. the same requirements specified by the AG settlement
  2. label standardization across the state, making translation more streamlined.

Read more about MRNY’s work on language access.

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