Basic Health Plan by Ngoc Huong Thi Tran


I am 60 years old and live alone. I came to the United States in 1996. After a few months of studying English as a second language at an adult school, I was able to survive with the limited income that I earned from my daily hard work. I was not as fortunate as many others. I got laid off many times, which caused me to move constantly to accommodate my jobs’ locations. At my previous job, due to low income, I had medical insurance from Contra Costa County. It was called the “Basic Health Plan” which the county gave to me every six months. I came to the clinic, where I met with my doctor to re-apply every six months when my insurance card had expired. During this time period I didn’t have a problem communicating with the people at the clinic even with my limited English. In 2002, I got very sick and came straight to the clinic for urgent care, only to find out that my card was expired and was told to re-apply by phone. I was not allowed to see my doctor to explain how difficult it was to have a conversation by phone in English after having diarrhea for several days. Still, the people at the clinic sent me home without much help. They let me know that there is a Vietnamese line to serve those with poor English.

Back home, after trying several times to call the phone number I was given, I discovered that there was not a Vietnamese line like I was told at the clinic. Consequently, I tried the English line and was unable to explain in detail what I was experiencing. Finally, I gave up and began to take all types of non-prescription medicines for diarrhea. The diarrhea stayed with me on and off for six months until one day, I couldn’t move out of bed. My legs had become excessively swollen to the point at which it was bigger than my thighs. I called my sister and she urged me to call the ambulance immediately. I was brought to the hospital in Martinez, where there were no interpreters at that time. I stayed in the hospital for two days before the doctors found out that I had previously lost 40 pounds due to nutrition deficiency and a major virus in my intestine. My life was saved. But I now have to take medication for the rest of my life.

What can we learn from my story?

  1. The language barrier is a serious issue that needs to be addressed more properly.
  2. The hospital system is too bureaucratic and not flexible.
  3. There is a need for more interpreters at all clinics and hospitals.
  4. The cost for being treated keeps people from the care they need.
  5. Hospital and clinic staffs need to get proper training to help people promptly & effectively.
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