Immigrants, Physicians Look to Obama for Health Care Reform

By Eduardo A. de Oliveira and FI2W reporter

When Barack Obama begins to focus on health reform as part of his lengthy to-do list, the new President probably won’t address the case of Pretinha, a 64-year-old undocumented housecleaner from Framingham, Mass., who worked for 22 years, but has no health insurance.

She is not alone. Dr. Milagros Abreu, a Boston University physician, knows hundreds of working families who, despite having paid taxes for years, were left behind by the Massachusetts Health Reform of 2006.

Dr. Milagros has helped more than a 1,000 Latino families enroll in a local health insurance.

Despite Pretinha’s lack of insurance, doctors at MetroWest Medical Center acted promptly after discovering her heart was failing. She was rushed to the operating room to receive a pacemaker, a small device that uses electrical pulses to normalize the heart rate.

Pretinha’s life was saved only because there were people who care for those who “simply don’t qualify.”

“Since June, our goal has been to draft a concrete proposal so the President can work on health reform on day one,” said John McDonough, a former Mass. state representative, and an envoy of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office to spearhead health reform efforts.

President-elect Obama has said he will look for Congressional input on the direction the country takes on health care reform. But will the Republican minority in Congress compromise? Or will 46 million Americans, of which 32 percent are Latinos, remain uninsured?

“It’s probably too early to say how the Republicans will vote,” said McDonough, who admits that the illness of Sen. Kennedy, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor last May, has helped soften some hearts, but will not be decisive.

Only a few hours after Obama was elected, Physicians for a National Health Program, a Chicago-based group of more than 15,000 doctors, was lobbying for a single payer system.

Critics say such a system follows the Socialist path.

“It’s not socialized medicine,” said Dr. Rachel Nardin, a staff neurologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Nardin not only believes “the country is ready” for such a system, but also points to the current financial crisis as an added incentive.

“The current crisis is crippling business’s ability to compete. It costs GM $ 57 more per car than its competitors oversees because of health care costs,” she says.

Still, for so many immigrant worker all the discussion sounds like ‘rocket science’ when many can’t find care other than at the closest emergency room.

Julcimar de Oliveira doesn’t know how to navigate the complexity of the health system in Massachusetts. Carlos Leite needs help finding a physician. His last doctor’s visit was five years ago. Both workers participated in a recent seminar in Framingham about how the U.S. health system works.

During the final days of 2008, Dr. Milagros coordinated a meeting with some local professionals at the headquarters of MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation to discuss the barriers that prevent Latinos from accessing health care. The goal was to report back to the Obama-transition team.

Among the group’s recommendations – the next administration should tackle language barriers and cultural competency, affordability, lack of access, and the complexity of the health care system.

Last year some college professors from Brazil surveyed 47 immigrants who returned from Massachusetts to their homeland. Virtually all of the “retornados” said they “didn’t know they had the right to get medical care in the U.S.”

Keep in mind: those workers lived in a state proud to extend health coverage to 97 percent of its residents.