HHS Hangs “Welcome” Sign on Doorway to Health Care

Next year, 15 million currently uninsured Americans will be newly eligible for Medicaid coverage.  Low-income women, men and children from a variety of backgrounds will have access to health care, and under the new guidelines put forth by HHS’ Office of Minority Health, the current administration is making it clear that all individuals, no matter what ethnicity, sexual orientation or cultural background are welcome.

HHS announced the release of a promising set of updated cultural policies and principles to help providers better relate to minorities, address their care needs, and ultimately reduce health disparities. Many groups view this update as a major milestone in the implementation of the HHS Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, as well as a step towards equality in health care.

HHS’ policy update, referred to as the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Health Care, or CLAS Standards for short, is a set of guidelines to help provider practices relate culturally and provide linguistically appropriate health services. The enhanced National CLAS standards recognize health as being influenced by factors ranging from race and ethnicity to language, spirituality, disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and geography.

“We are making great strides in providing quality care and affordable coverage for every American, regardless of race or ethnicity or other cultural factors because of the Affordable Care Act,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as the release was announced. “The Enhanced National CLAS Standards will help us build on this ongoing effort to ensure that effective and equitable care is accessible to all.”

The update is well regarded among various organizations representing several groups. ThinkProgress posted a blog on the benefits to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The blog noted that included in the policy are recommendations made by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) in its field guide “Advancing Effective Communication, Cultural Competence, and Patient- and Family-Centered Care,” which provides guidance for incorporating the concerns of the LGBT community into the framework of culturally and linguistically appropriate care.

HHS updated the CLAS standards in response to changing demographics of the country and the growth of linguistic competency, and to ensure the relevance and applicability of the standards. This way, everyone will feel welcome and seek the care they need. In return, providers will be ready and able to respond.

“Many Americans struggle to achieve good health because the health care and services that are available to them do not adequately address their needs,” said J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MSCE, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health and Director of the HHS Office of Minority Health. “As our nation becomes increasingly diverse, improving cultural and linguistic competency across public health and our health care system can be one of our most powerful levers for advancing health equity.”