Health Care Across Borders

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Delivering health care to Latino migrants in the United States was high on the agenda of a meeting in Mexico last week that kicked off the start of Binational Health Week. Held in the old colonial city of Guanajuato, the gathering attracted government representatives, academicians and health care professionals. On hand for the inaugural event, Mexican First Lady Margarita Zavala told the audience that good health was a fundamental right.

Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos outlined different cross-border initiatives underway, including a plan to provide some emergency and primary care to 3,000 temporary agricultural workers in the state of Washington. The pilot program seeks to cover the workers with individual insurance plans costing $32 per month, Cordova said. Mexico’s top-ranking health official also gave details about the opening of health information desks in dozens of Mexican consulates.

“The health desks are not medical offices,” Cordova said. “They are places where universities, city governments, hospitals and non-governmental organizations give information about the most common illnesses and health promotion, and explain to people where they can get attention.”

As much as 45 percent of the Mexican population abroad, or nearly three million persons, do not have access to health care, Cordova said.

By 2012, the Mexican government plans to open 10 or more new health desks in the US (including Alaska) and Canada, he added.


In a presentation, Roberta Ryder of the US-based National Center for Farmworker Health said that the health insurance reform passed by the US Congress will exclude 60 percent of Mexican immigrants. Ryder predicted that health clinics will face increasing difficulties in providing basic services, as well as in offering adequate dental services to a needy population.

“We do preventive actions for children, but no possibility exists for doing restorative work in adults,” Ryder said. “We only take out teeth.”

Complicating the overall picture, she added, was the fact that only two percent of US medical school graduates elect to work in community health centers and clinics.

According to Health Secretary Cordova, Mexican migrants in the US suffer from a variety of illnesses in far higher percentages than their counterparts back at home. For example, while 7 percent of Mexicans are afflicted with diabetes, 14 percent of the Mexicans residing in the US suffer from the disease. Similar or higher percentage differentials between the two populations are documented for AIDS, mental illness and drug addiction, he said.

Xochitl Castaneda, director of the University of California’s Health Initiative of the Americas program, said feelings of isolation and exposure to a new environment with a junk food culture contribute to health problems and substance abuse in the migrant population.

Occupational health hazards are another key problem disproportionately impacting the US immigrant sector, Castaneda said. “Work-related accidents are one of the biggest problems immigrants have,” she said, “because (immigrants) do risky work nobody else wants to do and don’t have insurance coverage because employers do not offer it.”

Cautioning that binational health weeks like the one celebrated this year are a “little bandage on a hemorrhage,” Castaneda contended that migrant health needs should be resolved in a “structural manner.” While health care is recognized as a human right in Mexico, it is not considered as such in the United States, the migrant advocate lamented.

First initiated in 2001, Binational Health Week is dedicated to taking health care information and services to communities across North America.

For 2010, events were planned in 40 US states and three Canadian provinces. According to Mexico’s Secretariat of Health, public outreach was planned via schools, community centers, health fairs, consulates and mobile units. This year’s activities were organized around five issues, including campaigns against substance abuse, gang involvement, diabetes, obesity, and autism, among others.

Joining Mexico and the US, the nations of Canada, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia sent representatives to the Guanajuato kick-off. Reportedly, attendance at this year’s meeting was far higher than previous encounters.

Meanwhile, in a parallel initiative, the Zacatecas State Health Department announced it will create a joint fund with UC-Berkeley to establish health clinics in the Golden State where low-income migrants can get medical attention.

As part of the agreement, UC-Berkeley will send staff to Zacatecas for language and cultural instruction, while Zacatecas will send state government health personnel to California for training. Zacatecas is one of Mexico’s prime migrant expelling states, with large numbers of people from the central Mexican state currently residing in southern California, Texas and Illinois.

Sources: El Sol de Zacatecas, October 8, 2010. Article by Raul Pinedo. El Sol De Mexico/Organización Editorial Mexicana. October 7, 2010. Article by Doina Garcia. La Jornada, October 6, 2010. Article by Angeles Cruz Martinez. El Universal, October 5, 2010. Article by Ruth Rodriguez. Secretariat of Health (Mexico), October 4, 2010. Press release.


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