Medical group formed to address health disparities (FCN, 04-30-2003)

LOS ANGELES ( – The pain streaking through her heart was unbearable; as was not knowing its origin. But Yesenia Flores did not have any health insurance, money or means to seek a doctor’s care. She was led to Maria Vidal, a spiritual healer, who helped alleviate her pain. After her visit, she still did not know the source of her pain, but it was gone and that was sufficient for her.

The 22-year-old mother was soft-spoken and reserved when she shared her testimony, but her words resonated what statistics indicate are widespread: Latinos within the United States are facing ever increasing healthcare disparities, and if drastic changes are not implemented, matters could worsen.


In 2003, the University of California at Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research and the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California cited health insurance and health status as primary healthcare issues for California Latinos. According to a recent Cross-Border Key Statistics Fact Sheet compiled by various statewide and other health and welfare agencies, working Latinos do not have health insurance because they are employed by small businesses; they experience irregular or seasonal employment, which leads to ineligibility for coverage and gaps in coverage; the coverage is too expensive or not offered by employers; or they have trouble understanding the plans and completing forms.

To help close the gap, Health Net of California and the Consul General of Mexico recently launched the Mexi-Plan program and the Health Net Cross-Border Individual and Family Plans as the first cross-border healthcare plans.

“Our priority is to help the Mexican immigrant community in the U.S. get the information and resources they need to improve their quality of life,” explained Mexican Consul General RubŽn Beltr‡n. He said the partners are confident that the innovative products and services will help eliminate high cost and limited coverage, two main obstacles to accessing health care.

The Mexi-Plan is one of five Health Net cross-border plans and is available in the southern parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange Counties.

Edwin Rivera, Health Net’s Senior Manager with Latino Programs, told The Final Call that no one is enrolled in the new product yet, however, they have “received literally thousands of calls” within the first few days of its Mar. 15 launch.

Although health care is an issue for many within the Latino immigrant community, Mr. Rivera stated that this is an issue of health and not immigration.

But for Ms. Vidal, the two go hand-in-hand, she informed through Ms. Flores, her translator. “Many of the people I help are immigrants who cannot afford the high costs of doctor visits. Some of them are afraid. Many of them are new to this country. They do not speak the language and even though they are battered and bruised, they don’t know where to turn and suffer,” she shared. “So I help them with prayers, my hands, my teas for no cost.”

Other immigrants visit Mexico for their health care (15 percent in L.A. County), according to the Fact Sheet. It also stated that 40,000 to 50,000 Mexican workers cross the border into San Diego daily for employment, whereas there are three million visits annually across the border for medical services.

Reshma Shamasunder, director of the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative, attributes the poor health status of Latinos to lower education levels, immigration status and higher poverty rates, compared to non-Hispanic Whites.

“I believe that anti-immigrant sentiment plays a big part. There have been all kinds of raids in workplaces, which causes immigrants to be afraid to seek health care for themselves and their children, afraid that it will show up on their INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) records when they go to apply for green cards, or that they will get targeted by the government,” she said.

Reaction to the plans by Latino healthcare advocates across California vary. While there is a consensus that any effort to provide quality, affordable health services to the increasing Latino population is necessary, others insists that the U.S. health crisis impacts all ethnicities and must be addressed accordingly.

“Part of the problem is our public health policy. In the U.S., unfortunately, health care is a privilege and not a right. If you look at this, you can conclude without any doubt that health care is not a public policy priority,” contended Eduardo Gonzalez, executive director of the Clinica Monseignor Oscar A. Romero.

He said that many of the clinic’s patients (97 percent Latino, 80 percent uninsured and 95 percent below 100 percent of the federal poverty line) are diabetics who are taught to manage the disease through control and diet. But what most appalls him is that 95 percent of their patients are fully employed. “Some of them even have two full-time jobs. We’re talking about the working poor who lack health insurance and their only other resources are county facilities and emergency rooms,” Mr. Gonzalez continued.

The problem, he added, is that emergency rooms and trauma centers are more expensive than preventive care treatment facilities, and, although by law, no one can be turned away, the facilities can make patients wait for very long times, even up to 24 hours.

Ms. Shamasunder cited the effects of anti-immigration legislation, such as the 1996 Federal Welfare Reform law. It made certain categories of immigrants ineligible for health care, caused confusion as to who is eligible and the laws and rules governing accessÑwhich are all causes for people to stay away, she insisted.

She said that much of the work of the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative centers on state level policies. In February, it introduced Senate Bill 1569 focused on Human Trafficking Victims. The bill provides access to critical services for immigrant survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence and other serious crimes (including sex trafficking), while they await processing from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or Department of Homeland Security. Under the existing law, human trafficking victims are granted access to federal or state services once federal certification is complete. However, during the interim period, they are eligible for services if they meet program criteria.

“What is critical that the media often misses is that the lack of access to health care that Latinos are facing is actually one piece of a larger problem that we’re having with our national healthcare system. It is crumbling, not just for immigrants, but a lot of adults and non-immigrants working in jobs that do not have job-based insurance,” she argued.

For Mr. Gonzalez, it presents a myopic way of providing health care. “We need to invest more money in primary health care and prevention. If everybody in this country had access to health care, we would avoid many of the complications we are seeing, like obesity and Type II Diabetes in 9- and 10-year-old children,” he maintained. “If we have the will to fund health insurance protection for everyone in the U.S., we will find the money to do so.”