Workers Can’t Stand Choosing Benefits, and Spanish Speakers Can’t Understand Them, Too

By Sarah Fister Gale

Oct. 26, 2015

Remember how complicated it was to understand your health care benefits when you got your first real job? Now imagine trying to figure it out if all the information was in another language. That is exactly what happens to millions of Spanish-speaking workers and their families in the United States, and it’s costing them — and their employers — a lot of money.

In 2013, 21 percent of U.S. households (about 62 million people) reported speaking a language other than English at home, and Spanish was by far the most common at 62 percent. That same year, there were roughly 11 million Latino immigrants working in the United States.

“As our workforce in this country becomes more diverse, it’s just good practice to think about what form information should come in for it to be most effective,” said Irfan Hasan, senior program officer of health and people with special needs at the New York Community Trust, which supports an array of nonprofits in the city. That means giving workers the information they need in a language — and platform — that is most easily accessible, he said.

While companies may factor these language barriers into things like workplace training and on-the-job coaching, it often doesn’t extend to other areas of human resources materials, which can cause employees and the business to suffer, said Robin Gelburd president of New York-based Fair Health Inc., a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing transparency to health care costs. “If employees don’t understand how to cost-effectively access care, they often choose the most timely and expensive options,” she said. She noted that 30 percent of Latinos still view the emergency room as the first point of care.

“That creates long delays that leads to missed work and lost productivity, and it’s not affordable,” she said.

To help companies better meet the health care needs of their Spanish-speaking employees, Fair Health recently launched a Spanish-language health care cost transparency mobile app, called FH CCSalud (the English language version is FH Cost Lookup), which can be downloaded free from iTunes and Google Play. The app, which the organization created with a grant from the New York Community Trust, was designed to make health care information more accessible to the Latino population. “Having good information is the first step of making sense of complex health care information,” Hasan said. “The New York Community Trust sees this app as a way to reach an underserved population with that information and education in a format they are most likely to use: mobile apps.”

Several recent surveys show that Latinos are more likely to access the Internet through their phone rather than a computer, including a 2014 Experian report that shows 45 percent of Latino smartphone owners are mobile-dominant when it comes to going online.

The free app enables insured Spanish-speaking consumers to estimate their out-of-pocket costs and insurance reimbursement for medical and dental services received in- and out-of-network; while uninsured consumers can obtain an estimate of the full cost of procedures in their geographic area. Users also have access to educational guides, glossaries and resources to help them make more informed choices when selecting plans and managing health care expenses. The cost information provided in the app is supported by Fair Health's database of more than 18 billion claims made for privately billed medical and dental procedures dating back to 2002. 

 “HR people need to think about how they can engage their Hispanic employees to create a new generation of engaged consumers,” Gelburd said. “If you arm your employees with the right information, they can take hold of their health care so that they can find less costly, more proactive ways to manage their health.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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