August 9 2002

Commentary

Uninsured Latinos Fall Through The Health-Care Gap

By Ramon Castellblanch

Here’s a startling statistic: Each year, 18,000 people in the United States die prematurely from lack of health insurance, according to a recent study by the Institute of Medicine. Uninsured adults with diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure or mental illness are much worse off than their insured counterparts. And even when the uninsured get care, it is often substandard, the institute found.

Lack of health insurance has dire consequences for the Latino community in the United States, since nearly half of working-age Latinos are without health insurance for all or part of the year, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

One reason for this crisis is that Latinos have fewer chances of getting jobs with health insurance. Many are hired in industries and occupations that don’t offer coverage. Even within these industries, they are less likely to be offered available coverage. And the 1996 welfare-reform act denies Medicaid to legal immigrants, many of whom are Latinos.

Not having insurance sickens and kills those with high blood pressure, according to the Institute of Medicine report. The uninsured have their blood pressure monitored less frequently, and when their disease is diagnosed, they are less likely to begin, or stay under, needed treatment. As a result, uninsured people with hypertension are more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes.

Lack of health insurance has taken the lives of many Latinas with breast cancer. When they are uninsured, they are less likely to have timely screenings. Their diagnoses are also delayed. When the cancer is finally found, it is more likely to be at an advanced stage. Uninsured women with breast cancer have had a 30 percent to 50 percent higher risk of dying than those with insurance, according to the institute’s findings.

The illnesses and fatalities that poorer Latinos suffer due to lack of insurance many soon be at the door of many middle-income neighborhoods and other American communities. Accelerating health-insurance costs and employer resistance to paying for the increases, threaten to force many insured workers off of their health coverage. Tolls from heart disease, cancer, AIDS and many other deadly diseases may start to rise.

It’s time for Congress to quit fooling around in the face of this growing disaster. In every other industrialized country in the world, the government ensures that all people have health insurance.

In our country, Medicare and Medicaid systems have done a good job at helping seniors and millions of children receive coverage. But these programs need to be expanded to cover the rest of the population.

It’s time to put a stop to the plague brought on by lack of medical insurance. Until we do it, the medical crisis that is already stalking many in our Latino communities will increasingly endanger the rest of America.

Ramón Castellblanch is director of the undergraduate health-management program and an assistant professor of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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