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Lost in translation at city drugstores - Local activists fight for improved language services in NYC pharmacies

Community activists from Make the Road New York added new complainants to join a pending civil rights complaint with the New York State Attorney General’s Office against language discrimination at pharmacies throughout Brooklyn.

“Our approach is to find one sweeping resolution that will affect all pharmacies in the area to provide more translation services to ensure the quality of care and that patients stay healthy,” said Theo Oshiro, a health advocate with MRNY. “Pharmacy staff should be speaking with patients in a language they can understand.”

Make the Road, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and the New York Immigration Coalition filed its original complaint, which is not a lawsuit, with the Attorney General’s Office on July 26, 2007, on behalf of five limited English proficient New Yorkers who experienced discrimination at four pharmacies. According to the 2000 Census, one out of every four New Yorkers do not speak English and 47 percent of all New York City households speak a language other than English at home.

The complaint seeks to enforce the rights of those who are limited English proficient who have been denied mandated translation and interpretation services by pharmacy staff and are put at risk by medicines with English-only instructions. The number of pharmacies on that list health activists accuse of violating civil rights law has grown to 25 while eight new complainants were added to the ongoing civil rights complaint that MRNY members hand delivered to the Attorney General’s office.

“People aren’t getting translated labels in the community and they might go home with the wrong medication,” Oshiro said. “We want to thank the Attorney General for listening to us we hope he finds a speedy resolution to this problem.”

A number of pharmacies in Brooklyn have made the list, including the CVS Pharmacy on 6502 18th Avenue, Rite Aid Pharmacy on 355 Knickerbocker Avenue, Kraupner Pharmacy on 457 Knickerbocker Avenue, Woodhull Prescription Center on 751 Flushing Avenue, Gardner Pharmacy on 371 Broadway Avenue, St. Jude’s Pharmacy and Surgical Supply Store on 121 St. Nicholas Avenue, and Duane Reade Pharmacy on 749 Broadway Avenue. Each of the pharmacies on the list has a similar set of alleged statutory violations including a failure to provide skilled interpretative services for LEP individuals and written and oral translation for medication labels.

“In the Civil Rights Law of 1964, language is a proxy for national origin,” said Nisha Agarwal, an attorney with NYLPI. “Labels must be clearly understandable for patients of these pharmacies.”

Irania Sanchez, a MRNY member who joined the complaint, went to a Rite Aid in Queens to fill a prescription for her diabetes medication, but the pharmacy staff told her to find a translator at home.

Some patients have to rely on children or grandchildren to translate their medications, putting their relatives in an uncomfortable position and changing the family dynamics.

“I take many medications and I usually have to ask my granddaughter who is ten years old to translate my medications,” said Maria Sanchez, a Make the Road member and complainant. “This is too much responsibility for a young child and we need a solution.”

Other patients, such as Aida Torres, often withhold taking medication prescribed by their doctor because no one at their pharmacy was able to translate the instructions.

“I went home very confused because I didn’t understand the dosage or effects of the medication,” Torres said. “Instead of taking the medication, I just took Tylenol and that only alleviated the pain a little bit.”

Officials with the New York State Attorney General’s Office took the updated complaint from Make the Road but were not willing to comment about particular details surrounding the pharmacies listed on the complaint.

“The Attorney General is grateful to Make the Road for their commitment to this issue and for working with us to ensure the rights of all New Yorkers,” said Attorney General spokesman Matt Wing.

Craig Burride, executive director of the New York State Board of Pharmacies, which represents licensed professionals and independent owners, said that those pharmacies have staff that speak multiple languages or the language from the demographics of the neighborhood. Others have software to print out labels so that one set that is English and another set that is Spanish, Russian or other languages.

“What you have in the city is a number of chains coming in now that may not have hired staff or gotten the demographics down on their base. Hopefully they will start moving in that way,” said Burride.

According to CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis, the pharmacy offers a program of language interpretation services to supplement the bi-lingual abilities of the store personnel in assisting pharmacy customers who speak a language other than English, and all stores have access to telephonic language interpretation services to provide prescription drug counseling to pharmacy customers who are not proficient in English for over 150 languages.

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