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Hispanic Health Disparities Subject of Hearing

On September 23, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Public Health held a hearing to discuss health care problems facing the Hispanic community. During his opening remarks, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) mentioned his bill (S. 2990), which was introduced the same day as the hearing and would provide for programs and activities to improve the health of Hispanic individuals.

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX) testified before the subcommittee, and he noted that September 15th marked the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. However, he added, “These events mean little if we cannot effect positive change at all policy levels to improve the quality of life for Hispanics and all Americans.” Rep. Rodriguez also noted that three areas of health care must be improved to help Hispanics. According to Rep. Rodriguez, these areas include the expansion of health care coverage for the growing Hispanic population, the improvement of access to services for Hispanics in areas of particular need, such as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and border health, and the creation of a health professions system that will “reduce health disparities in the long run through improved training and opportunity.”

Speaking on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Dr. Cristina Beato explained that while Hispanics comprise 13 percent of the population currently, this percentage is projected to rise to 25 percent by the year 2050.

Dr. Beato made clear that HHS has made the “elimination of racial and ethnic disparities in health a priority.” She also added that HHS efforts are focused on six major areas where “minorities experience serious disparities in health access and outcomes—diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, infant mortality, child and adult immunizations and HIV/AIDS.”

HHS has implemented many programs, including a campaign entitled, “Màs que Comida es Vida” (It’s More than Food, It’s Life) that focuses on Hispanics who have diabetes or who are at high-risk to develop the disease. Dr. Beato also explained that HHS has developed a bilingual booklet to provide information to Spanish-speaking parents whose children may be eligible for health insurance benefits through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid.

In his testimony, Dr. Glenn Flores of the Latino Consortium of the American Academy of Pediatrics Center for Child Health Research said that Latino parents cite language barriers as “the single greatest barrier to health care access for their children.” However, he added, “research documents that medical interpreters are frequently not called when needed, are inadequately trained, or are simply not available at all.”

Dr. Flores gave two recommendations for eliminating language barriers within the health care system. First, the number of current and future health care providers who speak Spanish and other languages commonly spoken by Americans must be increased. Secondly, health care institutions must ensure that all patients limited in English proficiency have access to trained medical interpreters.

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, of the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at San Antonio, Tex., said that “unless we reverse the college and post-college success rate of under-represented minorities, the future and the health of our nation are in serious jeopardy.” Dr. Cigarroa continued that one way to reverse this rate is for other colleges and universities to replicate one of the UT’s “most successful programs”—the Med/Ed program.

According to Dr. Cigarroa, the Med/Ed program is year-round and introduces young students from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to the health professions by allowing them, at an early age, to visit labs, doctors’ offices, hospitals, and UT’s Health Science Center. He added that since 1997, 750 students have participated in the Med/Ed program, and of the 1997 and 1998 high school graduates who participated, 78 of them are entering the health professions.

Dr. Cigarroa noted that in FY2003, the current level of funding for all Title VII health professions training programs may not be maintained. He stressed that “to discontinue this funding now, to discontinue our progress now, would be to take a large step away from, rather than toward, our goal.”

Agreeing with Dr. Cigarroa, Dan Reyna of the New Mexico Border Health Office said, “We cannot engage in a systems approach to address the health problems of the Hispanic population if we cannot open the doors to the future and widen the hallways of opportunity for aspiring and qualified health professionals, students, and faculty.”

Dr. Elena Rios of the National Hispanic Medical Association added that more “Hispanic leaders need to be promoted in the federal and private sectors in decision-making positions to advance a quality health system for all Americans.”

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