Does the nation’s health system discriminate by cultural background, or take diversity into consideration? On Wednesday, a panel of speakers announced a blueprint — formed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — to address these questions.

The updated National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services, or CLAS, reinforces the agency’s ambition for health equity among a diverse U.S. population.

“Our nation is becoming more diverse by the day,” said Howard Koh, the assistant secretary at HHS. “Seven of our 15 most populated cities are minority majority. We can send a message that care needs to honor culture, with the term culture defined broadly.”

CLAS goes beyond its previous definition of “culture”— to now include language, spirituality, disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity and geography. The original standards, created in 2000 by HHS’ Office of Minority Health, defined culture by race, ethnicity and language.

One principal standard drives the blueprint: “to provide effective, equitable, understandable and respectful quality care and services that are responsive to diverse cultural health beliefs and practices, preferred languages, health literacy and other communication needs.”

CLAS aims include:

  • offering free language assistance to Americans who have limited English proficiency and/or other communication needs to improve access to health services;
  • recruiting, promoting and supporting a culturally and linguistically diverse governance, leadership, and workforce to serve the entire U.S. population;
  • providing easy-to-understand print and multimedia materials and signage in the languages commonly used by people in all service areas;
  • creating health resolution processes for Americans that are culturally and linguistically appropriate, to resolve conflicts and complaints; and
  • conducting regular assessments of community health assets and needs  — and using results to plan health services.

“The enhanced standards are also directed toward a broader audience to more fully address the importance of more culturally and linguistically appropriate services at every point of contact along the health and human services continuum,” said Nadine Gracia, director of the HHS Office of Minority Health.

Added Kathy Ko Chin, president of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum: “The CLAS blueprint is needed to ensure that Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities receive health care that is high quality and meets their diverse needs.”