LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
In California, regulators are considering new rules that would require pharmacists to provide labels for prescription drugs in foreign languages. New York approved a similar rule last year to make it easier for non-English speakers to take their medications properly and avoid dangerous mistakes. Many pharmacists in California oppose the move. The state board overseeing pharmacies there will discuss the pros and cons this week. From member station KQED, April Dembosky reports.
APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Every Saturday morning, a steady stream of Chinese and Vietnamese patients line up at the Paul Hom Asian Clinic in Sacramento. Most of them speak little to no English. Patient advocate Danny Tao says people come here to get free medical consultations and drug prescriptions. But when patients take them to Walgreens or Target to get filled, he says they don't always understand the instructions on the label.
DANNY TAO: They go pick him up and we don't exactly know if they're taking it or not or if they know how to take it.
DEMBOSKY: Tao says drug labels at most pharmacies in California are printed only in English. That puts patients in danger of taking too much medication or not enough - mistakes that can cause serious harm or even death. Tao says the drugs his clinic supplies directly all have a bilingual label.
TAO: It's going to be English-Chinese or English-Vietnamese and yeah - by the time they get home, they would know exactly how to take the medications because it's in their own native language.
DEMBOSKY: This week, the state board of pharmacy will discuss new regulations that would require all pharmacies in California to do this. But the board's executive officer Virginia Herold says the move is very controversial. For example, there's a concern that pharmacists would have to use larger pill bottles to fit all the text of a bilingual label. Herold says patients don't like larger bottles.
VIRGINIA HEROLD: They decant the drug out of the container, put in a baggie, put it someplace else, there you've separated the medication from the instructions for how to take it.
DEMBOSKY: Pharmacists don't like the proposal either. They say it opens them to liability if there's a mistake in the translation. Brian Warren is with the California Pharmacists Association.
BRIAN WARREN: If the label is translated into Russian and there's an error in there, and I'm a pharmacist that does not speak Russian, I cannot verify that that error exists or that the information is in fact accurate.
DEMBOSKY: He says that could increase the cost of malpractice insurance.
WARREN: It's an expense that will ultimately make its way down to consumers and like all other healthcare costs, eventually will result in higher premiums.
DEMBOSKY: Proponents of translating labels say these concerns are outweighed by the problems patients who speak limited English face under the status quo. Sarah de Guia is with the advocacy group California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.
SARAH DE GUIA: There's a risk right now in the sense that they can't even understand anything on their label because the label is not in their language.
DEMBOSKY: She says expansion of insurance under the Affordable Care Act makes the issue even more urgent in California.
DE GUIA: You're going to have 1.5 more million limited English proficient individuals in the health care system now that the ACA has passed.
DEMBOSKY: The discussions are in the earliest stages. If new regulations go forward, there are a lot of details that need to be worked out, including which parts of the label would be translated, how many languages would be covered and who would have responsibility for the translation. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in Sacramento.
WERTHEIMER: This story is part of a reporting partnership with KQED, NPR and Kaiser Health News.