The Latino health crusader who’s not insured

by Janet Murguía

Janet MurguíaJanet Murguía

“I work. I am a productive citizen. But when it comes to insurance, what is out there for me?”

Any of the 15 million Hispanics in the United States who lack health insurance could have spoken these words, but it is even more poignant to hear them from Marytza Sanz, president of Latino Leadership, Inc., a community-based organization in Florida.

Ms. Sanz’s top priority as leader of Latino Leadership is to support Central Florida’s Latino community by increasing its access to preventive health services through improved awareness. Yet in spite of her long-standing mission, Ms. Sanz, who is diabetic, cannot even obtain for herself the quality health care she is making accessible to so many others.

Ms. Sanz’s situation exemplifies the struggles that members of countless Latino families endure. Without regular access to such essentials as insulin, supplies, and regular check-ups, Ms. Sanz cannot easily manage her diabetes. This inability to regulate one’s own health condition is the reason that Latinos suffer a higher risk of developing chronic medical conditions D such as obesity and diabetes D in the first place.

Studies show that language barriers and low health literacy widen the health disparity gap, preventing patients from understanding their doctor’s instructions, leading to dangerous, even fatal, complications as a result of medical error.

Chronic disease sufferers face other barriers to accessing care. For example, most insurance programs would immediately reject someone like Ms. Sanz. The ones that offer minimal coverage demand monthly rates of $800 or more. Many Latinos find it increasingly difficult to pay such astronomical price-tags, effectively barring them from the health care system.

Therefore, it is not surprising that more than one-third of Hispanics do not have health insurance. As a result, many shy away from visiting doctors, obtaining routine health services, and even going to the emergency room.

It is clear that we need to overhaul our health care system to ensure that all individuals can enjoy the healthy, productive lives to which they are entitled. This is why the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and a bipartisan group of more than 100 members of Congress support proposed legislation to make critical health services more accessible to the Latino community.

The Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2007, championed by Rep. Hilda Solís (D-Calif.) and the Congressional Tri-Caucus, would drastically improve opportunities for Latinos and other communities of color, reducing current disparities in the health care system by diversifying the workforce, instituting new programs at hospitals that serve these populations, and collecting data related to access to health care.

It will improve communication by increasing funding for language interpretation services and community-based health promotion activities that give families access to vital, easy-to-understand medical information. By establishing an Office of Health Disparities within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights along with civil rights compliance offices within other agencies, this bill taps into an issue more fundamental to the heart of our national values: the tradition of protecting everyone’s rights by empowering the most vulnerable members of our society.

While such legislation would be good news for Marytza Sanz, it would also significantly contribute toward achieving the goals of her organization, which prioritizes the health needs of children. Currently, legally residing immigrant children and pregnant women are barred from Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for five years after their arrival in the United States. If passed, this bill would increase health program access for these women and children. We know that a strong, healthy foundation is essential in giving children the best physical, mental and emotional start in life, so we should embrace those measures that bring this reality to more of this country’s youth.

The sacrifices by individuals such as Ms. Sanz for the welfare of underserved communities should not go unrewarded. For her service as a crucial link to health care, she deserves proper coverage so that she may perform her job more effectively, and, most importantly, so she can live her life without constant concern for her own condition.

When providers themselves go uninsured, we know it’s time to address health care’s inequalities. This bill is a golden opportunity for Congress to truly champion the cause of making health care accessible to those who need it most. Hispanic Link News Service.

(Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest advocacy and civil rights organization, writes a monthly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. She may be contacted at