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California’s Spanish-only nursing certification could kill patients, experts say

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The California Assembly unanimously passed a bill that would allow nursing assistants to be certified in Spanish-only exams, leading to concerns that English, or other non-Spanish language-speaking doctors, nurses, and patients being unable to communicate with nursing assistants may lead to injuries or even death.

AB 2131 would “make available the option to take the written and oral competency examination of a nurse assistant certification examination in Spanish.” According to bill author Assemblymember Avelino Valencia, D-Anaheim, “AB 2131 ensures our caregivers reflect the communities they serve and allow for a diverse nursing workforce ready to meet the needs of all patients” and will “help build the workforce pipeline to one that is more reflective of our population.

An Assembly analysis of the bill cited the fact that “individuals who are limited English proficient make up 28.1% (4,055,000) of the Latino population in California” as evidence that the bill can address a “need for cultural competency in the workforce.” The analysis also found “CNAs provide most of the hands-on care to patients in hospitals, continuing care retirement communities, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities,” which suggests CNAs play a critical role in patient outcomes.

Health experts say CNA’s importance in healthcare means no longer requiring basic English proficiency could lead to patient deaths.

“This bill could put lives of patients at risk as there could be costly mistakes in communication,” said Pacific Research Institute President Sally Pipes to The Center Square. “Just like for air traffic controllers where English is the international language, the language for nursing assistants should also be English so costly errors jeopardizing lives of patients do not happen.”

Nationally, there is a severe CNA shortage, with skilled nursing facilities having lost some 14% of their workforce since February 2020, leading more than 60% of nursing homes nationwide to limit new patient admissions. This means patients with more severe needs than can be provided for at home or at a lower-intensity facility have to take up costly and limited hospital beds.

With a quarter of Californians expected to be 60 or older by 2030, more nurses and caregivers will be required to treat the nation’s growing ranks of the elderly. At the same time, California faces the highest unemployment rate in the nation, and a new $25 healthcare minimum wage is poised to go into effect, thus positioning healthcare as a growing and attractive employment sector.

The Service Employees International Union, which sponsored AB 2131, is likely to continue gaining in power and influence as most industries move elsewhere and healthcare and government remain the main drivers of new jobs in the state.