Two older women sit on a bench in a park. Both are laughing and having a great time. One is wearing a blue button-up shirt with her hair back. The other is wearing a peach tank top, a watch and glasses.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS): A Peek behind the Curtain of the Healthcare Behemoth

Two older women sit on a bench in a park. Both are laughing and having a great time. One is wearing a blue button-up shirt with her hair back. The other is wearing a peach tank top, a watch and glasses.

June is right around the corner, which means summer is about to start … and CMS call center monitoring is about to end.

From around February to June, CMS conducts its annual Accuracy & Accessibility Study on health plan call centers that service Medicare. Part of the study is to ensure that health plans provide access to quality language services.   

We all know the crucial role interpreters play for health plans and their beneficiaries.

As a language service provider, we do constant preparation before, during, and after CMS testing season to ensure we provide the best service to the health plan agencies and their beneficiaries who are limited English proficient.

But with the 2022 testing season now coming to an end, let’s take a look at the CMS organization itself, including what it does, who it serves, and which languages its beneficiaries most commonly speak.

CMS program history

Medicare and Medicaid were first signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and each program is different.

Medicare provides health insurance for people 65 and older, or people under that age with certain disabilities.

Medicaid is public health insurance for those with low income, and the program serves diverse populations.

In the early years, Medicare and Medicaid only included health insurance, but over the years, Congress has made several positive changes and expansions to the programs.

For example, in 1972, Medicare expanded to cover those with disabilities, and in 2006, it expanded again to provide prescription drug benefits for enrollees, known as “Part D.”

Today, Medicare and Medicaid cover a broad range of healthcare services and benefits.

Related: How Experienced Interpreters Play It Cool for Medicare Call Monitoring

Medicare beneficiaries and the languages they speak

According to a 2017 CMS report, 8% of Medicare beneficiaries speak a primary language other than English. That might seem like a low percentage, but it means that 4 million Medicare beneficiaries require language services in order to fully understand and access their benefits.

In an April 2022 announcement, CMS outlined several new policies including informing all enrollees that free interpreter services are available if needed. This is another positive change to improve access and transparency for enrollees.

So which languages, aside from English, do Medicare beneficiaries commonly speak?

We found the following chart in the aforementioned CMS report, and Spanish is by far the most common across the U.S. Other significant languages include Mandarin, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Russian, and Korean.

A pie graph showing the languages spoken by Medicare beneficiaries in 2017, from most to least spoken: Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean, Russian, Italian, Cantonese, French Creole, and Other.
A chart showing the languages Medicare beneficiaries speak according to a 2017 report. Source: Understanding Communication and Language Needs of Medicare Beneficiaries, April 2017,

CMS also works to help serve enrollees who are blind, Deaf, or hard of hearing.

Medicare and Medicaid provide important benefits to individuals with diverse backgrounds and circumstances, including millions who speak limited English. Trained interpreters continue to be a crucial part of those services as CMS continues to expand and serve more Americans.

If you’re interested in star ratings and interpreting, read our CMS Star Ratings for Health Plans and Language Access: The Definitive Guide today!