Undocumented People Without Health Insurance Live With Fear, Uncertainty
Patricia Rosas has survived both the coronavirus and cancer. But her struggle with affordable health insurance hasn’t made either easy.
“It’s been five months since my surgery to remove my kidney,” Rosas said in Spanish. “I don’t feel ill but ... I had cancer and I didn’t feel anything. So I have some fear.”
About 6% of the state’s population is uninsured. According to a study by Access Health CT, Black and Latino people accounted for 19% of the uninsured population in 2018. But that counts only people who are citizens. Meanwhile, the Migration Policy Institute says 52% of undocumented residents lack health insurance.
Lawmakers passed a bill that will extend health care coverage to immigrant pregnant women and children. Set to begin in 2023, the measure will provide access to HUSKY Medicaid to undocumented immigrant children up to 8 years old. It will also provide prenatal care for undocumented immigrant pregnant people, as well postnatal care for a year. Both groups will qualify according to income eligibility.
But that leaves out patients like Rosas, who came from Mexico almost 30 years ago. She’s among the 120,000 undocumented people in Connecticut who aren’t eligible for state health insurance for people with low incomes.
For years, Rosas suffered in silence -- fearful that she’d be turned away from proper care due to her immigration status.
“I had a sharp pain under my right rib cage that often left me without air,” Rosas said. “That pain starts out very mild, and I suffered from it for many years.”
Rosas visited her local community health center where she was diagnosed with a gallstone.
“I told the doctor about the symptoms, but she only gave me a diagnosis and no treatment because the clinic didn't have the necessary equipment to treat me.” Rosas said.
Across the state, community health centers provide primary medical, dental and behavioral health care regardless of a person’s ability to pay. In Hartford, the Hispanic Health Council serves families under a model that bridges access to clinical services, preventive health education and family wellness.
The organization was founded in 1978 after the tragic death of an infant girl whose Spanish-speaking mother couldn’t understand the medical instructions she was being given in English. This death moved leaders to push for advocacy in health equity.
Yesenia Conde leads the council’s Youth Services department. The council serves over 200 families a year on average, and with the pandemic, that number nearly doubled. Conde says it was eye-opening.
“The pandemic allowed us to not just serve the families in-house, but it allowed us to see that the need is even greater than what we thought. Basic needs, mental health, social and emotional development in the children, so we really got to see the [needs] of families during this time,” Conde said.
Arelys Insignares is a community health worker promoting family wellness, working directly to educate families and connect them with services. While the pandemic interrupted home visits, the center remained open. But, more recently, Insignares resumed in-person visits with mothers and their children as a part of their Family Resource Center.
She works with mothers like Gladis Escalante, who arrived from Guatemala 15 years ago. Escalante has been working with Insignares since the birth of her first daughter 10 years ago. Like many of the families who visit the Hispanic Health Council, Escalante’s family is of mixed citizenship status. While Insignares is able to point her in the right direction to access health services for her daughters, the help that Escalante herself can get is limited.
“Just imagine, only my daughters have health insurance, for example, I don’t. I can’t go to a doctor because I can’t afford it,” Escalante said. “Right now, I am also diabetic, and sometimes I can’t pay for the medicine because I’m unemployed.”
So, she works closely with Insignares to educate herself and control her diabetes.
“Probably something that could have been avoided turns into something bigger because they didn’t have access or were afraid to say so. But sometimes they’re too late,” Insignares said.
That’s what happened to Patricia Rosas. She was admitted into surgery in November of 2019 -- nearly seven months from her initial visit to her local community health center.
“When the doctor came into the room, without further ado, she told me I had cancer in the kidney,” Rosas said, holding back tears. “I was in shock, because I said, ‘What do you mean, cancer?’ I couldn’t speak, I was like paralyzed.”
To help cover the costs, friends set up a GoFundMe fundraiser, and St. Francis Hospital provided her financial assistance. Without both, her final bill of $57,000 would’ve left her in crippling debt.
“I’ve tried not to let it affect me, but all of a sudden I start thinking if I get cancer again and what’s going to happen because I don’t have health insurance,” Rosas said.
In the past year, Rosas has participated in numerous rallies and shared her testimony.
“As long as something is not done about this problem, a lot of people are going to continue dying and having health problems that are going to eventually lead to death,” Rosas said.
Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.