On Monday, members of the House Health and Welfare Committee approved a bill to create a government license for sign language interpreters, despite reservations voiced by the Idaho Hospital Association.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, cleared the committee on a 10 to 3 vote and now heads to the House floor. Only Republican Reps. Mike Kingsley of Lewiston, Bryan Zollinger of Idaho Falls and Karey Hanks of St. Anthony opposed the measure.
This is the second time Packer has run such a measure; Gov. Butch Otter vetoed her first version, in 2015, which created a new board to manage and regulate interpreters. This version, she told the panel, rolled interpreter regulation duties into an existing board, so as to keep the expansion of government as small as possible.
Still, the measure expands the state’s regulatory duties. The measure would outlaw unqualified interpreters from serving in a high-stakes situation, primarily medical appointments. The measure would allow family members from signing to relatives in emergency situations until a medical facility can secure the services of a licensed interpreter.
The bill would still allow unlicensed people to sign in “inconsequential situations” or at religious events. The measure also exempts Idaho’s courts, but that system already provides qualified interpreters to those who need them.
Packer noted the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech and licensing interpreters guarantees that right for the deaf and hard of hearing.
“That’s what this is about for these people,” Packer said. “Their freedom of speech.”
Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Executive Director Steven Snow told panel members, through an interpreter, that though interpreters can secure national accreditation certifications, there’s no recourse against interpreters who engage in unethical or improper behavior on the job.
Snow told the panel he found little evidence of licensure causing interpreters to raise their prices. In the instances where prices did rise, Snow characterized the increases as small. He noted the bill would likely cost $125. It’s unclear how often a licensed interpreter would have to renew her license.
Nearly all the testimony from audience members strongly encouraged the panel to approve the measure. A number of interpreters, who would automatically qualify for licensure under the bill’s rules, said they’ve seen too many situations in which unqualified interpreters caused problems for deaf clients.
Only the Idaho Hospital Association came close to criticizing the bill.
IHA Vice President for Government Affairs Toni Lawson told the panel members hospitals already work to provide qualified interpreters for deaf patients.
“Hospitals currently are required to provide qualified interpreters and we are required to verify certification or levels of qualification and we hope this [bill] would be an additional tool and not something to complicate that process more,” Lawson explained.
She expressed concern over specific regulations that the oversight board could write if the bill passes into law. Lawson asked lawmakers to adhere as closely as possible to federal interpreter guidelines and national accreditation standards to prevent extra work for medical facilities.
Though Snow and others assured the panel during testimony that the bill wouldn’t cause an interpreter shortage, Lawson said the IHA worries that’s exactly what would happen under the bill.
Clifford Hanks, a Twin Falls resident who runs an interpreter referral service, told the committee that even though he adheres to libertarian philosophies, he believes the state should abandon some of those principles to protect the deaf.
“The free market needs a little support,” Hanks testified. “This does not destroy the free market, it just puts up some speed limit signs and guardrails.”
In her closing argument, Packer told colleagues that while hospitals provide interpreters, other medical practices do not.
Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, expressed reservations about the proposal during committee debate, but supported the measure after a prolonged pause when the secretary called for her vote. Similarly, Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, claimed to be on the fence about the issue, but he ultimately supported Packer’s bill.