Coalition Seeks to Improve Latino Healthcare Access

Prenatal care, other policy issues are the focus of advocacy efforts

July 31, 2012 -- With healthcare reform well under way at the federal and state level, Alberto Moreno, executive director of the Oregon Latino Health Coalition, believes the system needs to serve the needs of the Latino community.

“We found that there was a vacuum of Latino health advocates in decision-making in the state process,” Moreno said. “We knew there wasn’t anyone who was actively helping to inform state policy that impacted the half a million Latinos in Oregon. That became our calling.”

Since its founding in 2004, the coalition, which seeks to eliminate healthcare disparities for Latinos, has secured prenatal care for more than 5,000 women previously ineligible for Medicaid, and leveraged more than $10 million in federal funding for Oregon.

“If we’re not at the table, we fear that the policies that are being set up will only inform future health disparities for our communities,” Moreno said. ‘It’s a daily struggle for us to inform our legislative partners. We believe that if they truly understood the plight of this workforce, they would then do the right thing.”

Moreno is very familiar with such disparities, having worked as the migrant health coordinator for the Department of Human Services. He’s also acutely aware of his position, standing at the crossroads of two of the biggest and most divisive political issues of the day: immigration and healthcare.

Further complicating the issues, Moreno said, are an “incomplete narrative” and “great deal of misinformation” about the Latino community. He estimates that only 5 percent of undocumented workers access public services, despite widespread perceptions that suggest otherwise.

“Contrary to common understanding, we are shy and reluctant to lean on public or government-subsidized benefits. That isn’t part of our value system,” Moreno said. “We have a strong value of independence and family interdependence. Non-dependence on government and self-sufficiency are very important, so we stay away from that to the extent that we can.”

Such issues are particularly acute in Oregon, which ranks among the states with the highest farm worker population.

Workers are exposed to a unique series of health-related issues, including exposure to pesticides. Their risk of tuberculosis is six times higher than the general population of employed adults, and their life expectancy is 49 years, far lower than the average of 73.

Accessing healthcare services is also problematic, Moreno said, as only 10 percent report having employer-provided insurance. They’re also very seldom protected by laws providing sick leave, and can lose their jobs if they miss work to seek treatment. “They only access services when it’s almost too late, and they have no other recourse,” Moreno said. “It’s only because other doors are closed to us that we end up, against our choice, at the doors of emergency rooms across this nation.”

Moreno’s also become more involved in helping workers avoid deportations. When uninsured and undocumented workers are injured on the job and end up in the hospital, they’re put on an airplane and returned to Mexico after they’re medically stable.

The lack of access to prenatal care means that farm workers have an infant mortality rate 25 percent higher than the general population, Moreno said. Although both Washington and California offer prenatal care to undocumented women, Oregon does not.

“It’s in our collective best interest to make sure that those children are born health, able to learn and become productive citizens,” Moreno said. “I hope Oregon can see the wisdom in that. We’ll continue to work with our state partners to effect changes.”


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