Perez vs. Coburn
A dispute between the nominee and the senator is likely to resurface.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.)


Katrina Trinko

Add another issue to what will be a contentious confirmation fight over the nomination of Tom Perez for secretary of labor: his defense of the federal government’s requiring some doctors to provide translators for non-English-speaking patients.

In a scathing 2006 Mother Jones piece, Perez railed against an amendment authored by Oklahoma Republican senator Tom Coburn that would have repealed a Clinton-administration executive order leading to that requirement. Perez accused Coburn of having “exhibited a distressing disregard for the doctor-patient relationship.”

“Coburn, by promoting this amendment, will undermine meaningful communication between doctors and patients,” Perez added, “thus relegating those who do not speak English to a lower rung of our health care system.”


Although both Senate and House Republicans pushed to repeal the executive order, their efforts floundered, and it is still enforced today by federal agencies. In February 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder “reaffirmed” the Obama administration’s commitment to the order.

Nevertheless, a Senate Republican insider says Perez’s push for federally mandated translators is “very likely” to be an issue at his upcoming confirmation hearings.

At stake was whether the federal government should continue to require that doctors in some practices provide translators for patients who speak little to no English. “In the health care sector,” Perez wrote, “physicians, hospitals and other medical providers who receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement must provide interpretation and translation services in their patients’ primary languages, thus ensuring that patients with limited English proficiency can have access to health care services equal to that of English speakers.”

If translators weren’t mandated, Perez fretted that it “could literally mean the difference between life and death” for some Americans.

Coburn, an obstetrician, vehemently disagreed with Perez’s take. In 2009, on the day Perez’s appointment to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was confirmed by the Senate in a 72–22 vote, Coburn blasted Perez’s rhetoric on the Senate floor.

“After all my years of practicing medicine, I take offense at someone stating that I have a ‘distressing disregard’ for the doctor-patient relationship,” Coburn said. “I have treated numerous patients who do not speak English and found ways to communicate with them. Often these patients have family members who speak some English or they find other ways to communicate. There is no reason to burden health-care providers with the expense of having to provide services in languages other than English.”