Health Care Issues High on Latino Community Agenda

Health care, traditionally a vital issue in Latino communities, is still high on the list, but the focus may be shifting, according to Latino leaders who convened for a statewide summit last week in Sacramento.

“Health care has always been a priority for Latinos,” said Raquel Donoso, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation. “In surveys year after year Latinos say the top two issues are education and health care, usually in that order.”

“For a long time, the health focus has been about access to care but more and more it’s about managing chronic diseases, getting more recreational opportunities, better nutrition,” Donoso said. “There’s always been a strong health advocacy movement in the Latino community, and we’re hoping to bring those voices together with this work we’re doing.”

The Latino Community Foundation, a statewide philanthropy based in San Francisco, convened more than 100 leaders of California Latino organizations for a “Sacramento Summit” last week. The event launched the California Latino Agenda, a campaign to unite leadership, establish goals and lobby for policy positions. 

Donoso said the statewide campaign is a new direction for the Latino Community Foundation, which was formed in 2008.

“We have been funding Latino-based organizations for several years, and we’ve been hearing from the organizations themselves that there needs to be a more organized, unified voice,” Donoso said.

“Our role is to convene and connect these organizations and to make sure they know about what is happening in Sacramento and how different constituencies can get involved. We’re trying to bring new players to the table that might not have been active around policy issues at the state level in the past,” Donoso said.

Health Reform Offers ‘Tremendous Promise’

Health reforms under the Affordable Care Act offer “tremendous promise” for Latino communities, according to Sarah de Guia, director of government affairs for California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and a panelist at last week’s event.

“For a long time, many Latino communities and other communities of color have been left out of the health system — especially childless adults with two or three jobs but no health coverage. Under the ACA, these people have much greater opportunity to afford coverage,” de Guia said.

“There are still some hurdles,” de Guia said. “The fact that undocumented immigrants are not covered under the ACA continues to be heartbreaking, but we have hope that immigration reform may help. In California with such a large population of undocumented immigrants, it’s something we care about a lot,” de Guia said.

In her address, deGuia presented a broad overview of the changes under the ACA.

“My goal was to inform the foot soldiers who can take the information back to their communities and let people know what opportunities are coming under the ACA,” de Guia said.

“There are still a lot of people we need to educate about health reform. CPEHN did some surveys in different languages, and we found that a lot of communities of color don’t really understand what the ACA can provide. Events like this can help get the message out,” de Guia said.

Pervasive, Underlying Topic: Immigration Reform

“One of the most powerful things from this event was seeing the young people — the dreamers — getting involved,” said Masha Chernyak, director of programs and policy for the Latino Community Foundation.

Young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children and remain undocumented residents were the focus of the DREAM Act, a bill proposing a path to citizenship for them. The bill died in the Senate in 2010, but many parts of the DREAM Act are included in immigration reform proposals in Congress now.

“Getting people into the same room, you really see how there are a lot of connections between health, immigration and education. The dreamers really make that clear,” Chernyak said.

Immigration reform is “definitely an ever-present topic,” Donoso said, “but there’s so much that can and should be done at the community level no matter what happens in Washington,” Donoso said.

“Who knows what’s going to happen with immigration reform? We can certainly be involved and informed, but we can’t just wait,” Donoso said.

Speakers, Panelists Recount Latino Story Lines

Speakers at the event included Aida Alvarez, former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration in the Clinton administration; state Senators Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) and Ben Hueso (D-San Diego); and Assembly members Mariko Yamada (D-Davis) and Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).

Alvarez, the first Latina woman to hold a cabinet-level position, recounted her path from childhood in Puerto Rico to policymaker in Washington, D.C. Alvarez now sits on the Wal-mart board of directors.

De Leon’s address at the start of the daylong event — rated “extremely eloquent” by de Guia –was an accounting of his growing up making a daily trek from Mexico to San Diego and becoming not only the first person in his family to go to college, but the first to graduate high school. De Leon told his tale on the Huffington Post  earlier this month.

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