IMMIGRATION

Health Care Lost in Translation

German Valbuena, right, gives an eye exam last month to Daniel Parades in a trailer of the Hispanic Institute for Blindness Prevention. The trailer visited a multicultural festival at Leesylvania State Park in Prince William County.
German Valbuena, right, gives an eye exam last month to Daniel Parades in a trailer of the Hispanic Institute for Blindness Prevention. The trailer visited a multicultural festival at Leesylvania State Park in Prince William County. (Photo By Kevin Clark/Post)
By Marcela Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007

With a comprehensive immigration overhaul now perhaps years away, Latin American governments concerned with the well-being of their nationals living in this country are taking on an equally thorny issue: the U.S. health-care system.

In Washington, some foreign consulates are providing eye exams and medical tests in addition to the traditional passport renewals and marriage registrations.

The Salvadoran consulate, which serves the largest immigrant group in the Washington area, began offering "Estaciones de Salud" (Health Stations) two years ago. The Mexican consulate followed suit last year, offering similar health services that it hopes to expand to its 47 consulates throughout the United States by year's end.

"My health is important," said Luz de Mar¿a Mej¿a, 34, a nanny and restaurant worker who came to the United States four years ago without papers. She found navigating the health-care system "extremely complicated" and has turned to the Salvadoran consulate for help.

Jos¿ Rigoberto Mart¿nez, a burly, 48-year-old carpenter with a temporary work permit, said he believes that immigrants tend to neglect their health.

"If we have a headache but there is work, we work," he said.

While waiting to get his blood pressure checked, Mart¿nez said he has never received medical treatment, other than a few visits to a chiropractor. He stopped seeing the chiropractor because getting time off work and justifying $45 a visit proved prohibitive.

Seventy-five percent of the more than 3,600 Salvadorans and Mexicans who received medical attention at their consulates in Washington this year had not had a medical checkup in the past three years, said German Valbuena, director of the local Hispanic Institute for Blindness Prevention, the lead agency running both consulates' health programs.

Salvadoran Consul General Ana Margarita Ch¿vez said that soon after arriving in Washington, she fell ill and realized how expensive health care is in the United States. On average, 50 people a week received health services last year at the consulate. Those services normally include a referral to a health center or clinic that offers care regardless of the patient's economic or immigration status.

Mexico's secretary of health, Jos¿ ¿ngel C¿rdova, said in a telephone interview that his government wants Mexican nationals in this country to have the "peace of mind of having access to basic health services."

As part of his government's goal of providing universal health care by 2010, C¿rdova said he hopes to provide "health care to all Mexicans regardless of where they are."

"The migratory phenomenon has been growing [around the world], and it is something we will be grappling with for some time. I believe there should be agreements among countries to guarantee a basic service such as health," C¿rdova said.


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