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Health Care Advocates Warn of ‘Dark Times’ for Latinos

Over the next four decades, the Latino population in the United States will more than triple, accounting for most of the country’s population growth. By 2050, about three of every 10 people will be Latino in the U.S., according to census predictions.

In California, the growth is expected to be even greater.  The state already has the country’s largest Latino population.

Political leaders and health advocates stress those demographic predictions when talk turns to health reform. Last year in California, Latino leaders backed a comprehensive reform package that aimed to offer health insurance coverage to almost everyone in the state.

Now, with that proposal dead and the state grappling with budget problems, Latino leaders aren’t expecting much from a fractured “Year of Health Reform” in California. Instead they were hoping for some progress on the national front, but prospects now look dim in light of the upheaval on Wall Street and lingering questions about the economy. 

‘Very Dark Times’

Al Hernandez-Santana, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, is not optimistic for the short term.

“These are very dark times. I think almost the whole attention of Congress and the new administration will be on the state of the economy and what looks like a deepening crisis,” Hernandez-Santana said.

“This harkens back to the time of the depression with what’s going on with Lehman and Merrill-Lynch and the big insurance companies. I think the economy will occupy all of the agenda, and it’s going to be really difficult to push for significant or comprehensive health reform,” Hernandez-Santana said.

“I remain optimistic that advocates will continue to work for change along with certain champions at the national level who will continue to push this issue. But in the short term, I’m not expecting much. Maybe three years from now, … ” Hernandez-Santana added.

Lucien Wulsin, Jr., project director for the Insure the Uninsured Project in California, also is less than optimistic.

“There are two existing perils that could increase number of uninsured dramatically in California,” Wulsin said. “One is a creeping loss of coverage as people lose jobs. If you’re a high-income person who loses a job, chances are you’ll have enough disposable income to keep your coverage under COBRA. But if you’re a lower income worker and you get laid off, you’re probably not going to be able to keep that coverage going.”

Noting that the economic “prospects look pretty bleak right now,” Wulsin predicted the uninsured ranks will grow steadily from those “creeping” losses.

“And the second thing is the direct cutbacks as a result of the state budget,” Wulsin said. “Those Medi-Cal cutbacks are gong to have a big impact.”

The state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) agreed to cut Medi-Cal reimbursements by 10% to help the state save money, a move many predict will cause health care providers to accept fewer Medi-Cal beneficiaries.

“The governor laid out a pretty good framework for reform this year, but it’s clearly going to have to go to the ballot to get anywhere,” Wulsin predicted. “We’re maybe talking about 2010 or 2011. Next year, I think we’ll still be dealing with a recovering economy. At least I hope it’s recovering by then,” Wulsin added.

Latino Health Findings

Looking beyond efforts to expand health insurance coverage, recent research from the Pew Hispanic Center highlighted areas for concern about Latinos’ health overall.

More than one of every four Latino adults in the U.S. does not have a consistent health care provider and about the same number say they had no information or advice from medical personnel over the past year, according to a Pew Hispanic Center survey conducted in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The 2007 Latino Health Survey explored access to health care as well as sources of health information, with special attention paid to Latinos’ knowledge of diabetes.

Latinos have a higher prevalence of being overweight and obese “and they have a greater predisposition to diabetes than the non-Hispanic white population,” according to Susan Minushkin, deputy director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

The study, surveying more than 4,000 Hispanic adults from July to September last year, examined Latinos’ health habits and perceptions of diabetes “at greater depth and breadth than any other national survey or the federal government,” according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Consistent preventive care is one of the best ways to deal with chronic conditions such as diabetes, but Latinos often lack that option. Latinos are about three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to lack a regular health care provider and twice as likely as non-Hispanic blacks, according to CDC.

Among Hispanic adults, men are least likely to have a consistent health care provider, followed by the young, less educated and those with no health coverage, the Pew study found. Foreign-born and less-assimilated Latinos — those who speak mostly Spanish, who lack U.S. citizenship, or who have had only short tenures in the United States — are less likely than other Latinos to have a consistent place to go for medical treatment or advice, according to the study.

About seven in 10 Latinos (71%) said they received information from a doctor in the past year, but even more (83%) said they got health information from the media — mostly television.

About eight of 10 Latinos who said they got health information from the media (79%) said they acted on the information.

“It is beyond the scope of this report to assess the accuracy and usefulness of health information obtained from non-medical sources,” Pew researchers wrote.

But, they added, the survey findings “clearly demonstrate the power and potential of these alternative outlets to disseminate health information to the disparate segments of the Latino population.”

Related Topics

Insight Insurance Medi-Cal The Health Law