Latinos and Healthcare Reform

Senator Dick Durbin
March 19, 2010
Latinos and Healthcare Reform
Prepared Remarks
In March of 1927—over 80 years ago—one of the greatest civil rights leaders was born. Cesar Chavez had the rarest kind of courage—moral courage—and he had great faith in the promise of America.
During times like this, it is good to ask ourselves: “What would Cesar Chavez say if he were here today?”
I think he would be encouraged to see how far we have come in bridging some of the old racial divides. I think he would be deeply proud – as so many of us are – to see America’s first African American President leading our nation in a time of such monumental challenges. And he would be encouraged to see the first Latina justice on the United States Supreme Court.
In many ways, America is becoming the place Cesar Chavez dreamed of. But I think Cesar Chavez would also remind us that the struggle for equal justice is far from over.
Today we are highlighting one of the areas where more must be done: health reform.
Another great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech he gave right here in Chicago in 1966, said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” [at the second convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, March 1966]
This weekend’s vote in the House is history in the making. The vote will bring us one step closer to building an America where everyone is treated equally – regardless of the color of their skin, their ethnic origin, and yes, their family’s history of disease.
Illinois, the Uninsured, and Latinos
In a country as rich as ours, it’s shameful that there are 47 million Americans without health insurance.
In Illinois, that’s 1.8 million people without health insurance – people worrying about a child with flu symptoms, limping down the street with a bad knee, or wondering how much longer they can ignore that nagging cough or troubling chest pain.
Nearly one million families in Illinois have at least one uninsured family member.  This is happening to the poor, the near poor, and the middle class . . . black, white, brown – it’s happening to all of us.
But if you simply look at the numbers, Latinos feel it the worst. Over 435,000 Latinos in the state of Illinois are uninsured. Nationally, Latinos represent more than one-third of the uninsured population.
Without insurance, we all know what happens. You don’t have a regular source of care. You put off getting a check-up. You wait until you can’t take the pain anymore.  You think you have nowhere to go but the emergency room.
From premature births to premature deaths, people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of America’s broken health care system. On average, they live sicker and die sooner and go without needed medical care more often.
Latino Health Disparities
Here are a few examples:
  • Latinos living in the US are almost twice as likely to die from diabetes as are non-Hispanic whites.
  • Latinos account for a disproportionate percentage of new cases of tuberculosis.
  • Latinos also have higher rates of high blood pressure and obesity than do non-Hispanic whites.
  • Despite representing only 15% of the U.S. population, Latinos represent 19% of people living with AIDS.
  • The number of Latino children who are overweight has dramatically increased over the past three decades. Weight problems place these children at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses in the future.
  • Communities of color, in general, also suffer disproportionately from HIV, heart disease, stroke, and other medical conditions.
But, this weekend, the House – and next week, the Senate – have an opportunity to make a world of difference for Latinos and all Americans. On Sunday, the House is set to vote on the next step in finishing the job of passing comprehensive health insurance reform in 2010.
The House will pass two measures: the Senate bill and a reconciliation bill to make improvements in the Senate bill. Together, these measures will go a long way toward ensuring that Latinos, and all Americans, have access to quality, affordable health care.
The Bill Fulfills Our Principles for Health Reform
The bill responds to what I’ve been hearing from people all over Illinois. It achieves the major principles we outlined from the beginning of this debate more than a year ago, when we said that we wanted a bill that would lower costs, expand coverage, increase choice, and improve the quality of care.

  • Compared to the status quo with its unpredictable and unjustified premium hikes that can be imposed whenever the insurance companies want to increase their profits, this bill reduces the cost of health insurance for families and small businesses struggling to afford their health insurance premiums.
  • It extends coverage to more than 30 million Americans—almost 9 million Latinos—who suffer day after day without health insurance.
  •  It provides you a choice of private health insurance plans and holds those plans accountable for the value they provide, with the right to change plans every year if you don’t like the job the insurance company is doing.
  • To help many of the people who can’t afford private insurance, the bill expands Medicaid to everyone living below 133% of poverty – that’s $14,400 for an individual.
  • It puts an end to many insurance company abuses. They won’t be able to exclude you from coverage if you have a preexisting condition, or drop you when you get sick, or cap your benefits so that they run out when you need them most.
  • It includes reforms to improve quality and reduce the amount of wasteful and unnecessary spending that gums up our health care system today.
Need for Cultural Competence and Diversity in Health Professions
As Latinos are poised to become the largest minority group in the nation, it is critical that our healthcare system respond to the community’s diverse needs.
We already know people and places that do it right. We can look to community health centers right here in Chicago.
  • Carmen Velasquez and her talented staff have been making a difference in the community since the Alivio clinic first opened its doors 20 years ago. Alivio meets the primary care needs of more than 20,000 Spanish-speaking, immigrants – predominantly Mexican – who otherwise would fall through the cracks of our health care system. Alivio provides high-quality, culturally sensitive medical care for those whose income or lack of coverage limit their access to care. But clinics like Alivio cannot be left to do it alone, so health reform will do more to ensure all providers across the country can meet the needs of a diverse population. 
  •  The bill takes steps toward eliminating disparities by investing in data collection and research about health disparities.  Having the right information about who we are serving helps us target our programs to meet the needs of our patients.
  • The bill will also expand initiatives to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of health care professionals and strengthen cultural competency training among health care providers.   Programs like the Hispanic Center of Excellence at the University of Illinois at Chicago have done wonders with little money to ensure that more Latino students enter the medical field.   These students need financial assistance and the schools need funding to go out and recruit more Latino students so that one day, our medical professionals can better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.
  • The bill also increases the number of community health workers. These are trained lay people who can work within their communities to help teach others how to protect their health and monitor chronic health conditions like diabetes so they can avoid unnecessary complications. Promotoras [pro-mo-TOR-as] throughout Chicago are doing great work to educate members of the community and help them learn about available services or learn how best to exercise.
There are tremendous resources right here in the community and this bill recognizes that.
An Important Beginning
This “final bill” isn’t the end. It’s an important beginning of an ongoing process. We need your help to make sure it is carried forward in the best way possible.
And we will need your help to continue to make it better over time, just as we did with Social Security, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and every other major achievement in social justice in our nation’s history.
After all, no single law can eliminate all the health inequities in our nation. But the health reform bill that Congress is now on the verge of passing will make a significant difference. 
It will do more to promote social and economic justice and promote equal access to health care in America than any measure since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the creation of Medicare.
Latinos have been there every step of the way along the journey to improve social justice in America.
I look forward to continuing this journey with you.