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Cross-Border Health Plan Targets Latinos

More than three million Hispanics in California have limited access to health care. Health insurance companies and Mexican officials are working to solve the problem.

Health officials say it is a challenge on both sides of the border. Many Latinos work at low-paying jobs with no health benefits.

The problem is acute in California, the most popular destination for Mexican immigrants, says Mario Gutierrez of the private health foundation called the California Endowment.

"We estimate that about half of the immigrants in the country are in this state," he said. "So it does present a particular challenge in terms of services for this population, as well as health protections around health and safety as well as issues of infectious diseases and other issues that have a transborder perspective."

Gutierrez works with rural migrant workers, who are mostly Latino. He says the lack of health care is just as much a problem in the cities, however, where Latino immigrants work in small businesses, factories, markets and restaurants.

A California company called Health Net has worked with the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles on a Spanish-language guide that explains the U.S. health care system.

Ana Andrade, Health Net's vice president of Latino programs, says the company has also created a health insurance plan that allows patients to visit doctors in nearby Mexican cities such as Tijuana.

"That's because when we conducted research, we found out that there were more than three million visits each year from California to Tijuana to obtain medical care. And that's because these individuals are seeking doctors that speak their language and that they can communicate with. And so based on that, we decided that we wanted to expand our services and meet that need in the community," said Andrade.

The new plan lets users in Los Angeles and some of its suburbs visit doctors in the Mexican border cities of Tecate and Mexicali, in addition to Tijuana, or see Spanish-speaking doctors on the U.S. side of the border.

Mario Gutierrez says Health Net is the first company with a cross-border plan that extends as far north as Los Angeles, but other companies are working on similar programs.

He says Latinos are diverse. Some are recent immigrants and others have been here for generations. Some are here illegally, while many are legal residents or U.S. citizens. He says it is a challenge to meet all their health needs.

"Even within a family, you'll find that there may be a child who is born in the United States who's eligible for services. You have another child who is undocumented," said Gutierrez. "You have a parent who may be here legally, and then the wife is here illegally, and it just creates enormous nightmares for people to be able to access their basic needs for health and health care."

There are some 500 publicly funded community health centers for California's low income residents, including Latinos, and government programs provide medical care for children, seniors and others. But Gutierrez says immigrants need help to navigate the maze of private plans and public benefits to get health care for everyone in the family.