A new study concludes that the changing demographics of America's rapidly growing Hispanic population are spawning new challenges in health care coverage for a particularly vulnerable segment of society.
About 20 years ago, America's Hispanic population was overwhelmingly concentrated in major cities and southwestern states bordering Mexico. In recent years, however new Hispanic communities have sprung up in towns across the continental United States.
A study released by a non-profit public policy organization, the Kaiser Family Foundation, concludes that Hispanics in so-called "new growth communities" are more likely to lack access to health care than those living in major established Hispanic centers that have decades of experience tending to the community's needs.
The Executive Director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Diane Rowland, says these new health care challenges add to what is already a grim picture for the U.S. Hispanic population as a whole, which numbers about 42 million.
"Hispanics represent 13 percent of the total working population and are about as likely as all Americans to have an employed adult in the family, but nearly twice as likely to live in poverty," she noted. "Therefore, Hispanics have a very high uninsured rate, and also face language and cultural barriers to their [health] care."
An author of the Kaiser report, health care researcher Peter Cunningham, notes that, between 1996 and 2003, the Hispanic population nearly doubled in new growth communities, while major established Hispanic centers saw an increase of less than 20 percent.
"Recent Hispanic immigrants are much more likely to be uninsured compared to Hispanic citizens and those who have been living in the country for a longer period of time," he said. "And so it is no surprise that the increase in recent immigrants in new growth communities was also accompanied by an increase in the percent of Hispanics who are uninsured."
Experts say there are many reasons for low rates of health care coverage in the U.S. Hispanic population. Many Hispanics have low-skilled, low-wage jobs in which employers rarely provide health care benefits. Federal regulations restrict recent immigrants' access to government health care assistance. Language barriers and legal concerns also play a role, according to Jennifer Ng'andu, a health policy analyst at the Hispanic advocacy group, National Council of La Raza.
"In immigrant communities, when questions are asked about [legal] status and how far people are along in the immigration process, it deters them from seeking health care in general," she explained.
In the ongoing debate in the United States over immigration policy, some decry the costs imposed on local and state governments that must provide emergency health care and other services to illegal aliens. But researcher Peter Cunningham argues that assuring health care coverage should be everyone's concern, since health problems in one community invariably affect society as a whole. He says, from a financial as well as a public health standpoint, excluding large numbers of Hispanics from health care services makes little sense.
"When they do not have access to [health] care, they tend to use emergency rooms more, and that is going to be a cost to the community," he explained. "I think you also have to consider that, if they do not have access to health care, are their children getting immunizations? When they have infectious diseases, are they being treated? I think those are things that everybody should be concerned about."
The reports' authors note that many of the health care challenges affecting the Hispanic community also apply to immigrants from Africa, Asia and other parts of the world.
The National Council of La Raza's Jennifer Ng'andu says the health care deficiencies for immigrants are but one component of a larger need for health care reform in the United States.
"There are 55 million Americans without access to health care coverage and that problem needs to be addressed, as well," she added.
As for the particular needs of Hispanics and other groups, she says a good start would be to enact comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the legal status of some 12 million undocumented aliens in the United States.