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Immigrants Often Face Barriers to Healthcare

In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, Michele Skalicky reports on the barriers immigrants face when it comes to seeking healthcare.

When people immigrate to the US from Mexico and other countries to seek work, they’re generally young and healthy. They don’t think about how they’ll pay for medical care if they get seriously ill…many work at low-wage jobs without any health insurance. But when those immigrants get sick, it can be difficult for them to get the care they need.Dr. Robert Saylor is Director of Ethics for St. John’s Health System in Springfield. He says there are many barriers to healthcare for immigrants.

"Many of them don't have health insurance to begin with and don't have primary care physicians. The barriers include the cultural from the standpoint of the language barrier, but also the lack of family. Many of them do not have family of a support group here, and so it's important that we try to seek out a support group for those people."

According to Saylor immigrants’ access to healthcare is a significant issue in SW Missouri. He says having one person who has difficulty seeking care makes it a significant issue.

"It's growing, and we are seeing a larger numbers as time goes on just as most hospitals are. The numbers will continue to grow, we're aware of that, and the number of patients that we see through the emergency rooms in all the hospitals around here have increased significantly."

The Hispanic population is at a higher risk for diseases such as diabetes and kidney problems than other populations. If left unchecked, Saylor says those problems can quickly spiral out of control.

"They can have rapid deterioration in their function even as much as requiring dialysis and that type of treatment. Chronic illnesses that are unchecked and untreated will lead to greater and greater complications and add to increasing costs not only for society but for the patient themselves."

Often patients wait so long to seek help that they end up in the emergency room, which will cost them more. Yolanda Lorge is head of Grupo LatinoAmericano, an organization that helps the Hispanic population in the Ozarks.

"They really have to be doubled in pain, unable to get up or whatever for them to go to a hospital or to a doctor."

But a study released this spring by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that non-citizens are significantly less likely to use the emergency room than citizens. According to the study, some 13% of adult non-citizens reported an emergency room visit in the past year compared to 20% of citizens. It also found that non-citizens are much less likely than citizens to have a usual source of care, to have had any contact with a health professional or to receive preventive or primary care, largely due to their higher uninsured rate. According to the study, as a result of their lower use of care, non-citizens have significantly lower per capita health care expenditures than citizens.Lorge says some people may think that the public has to pay for illegal immigrants who go to the hospital and don’t pay. But she says that’s not the case.

"I'm sure there are some people who, just like the rest of the population, who would hide or whatever and never pay the bills, but, for the most part, these are people who don't even know that they don't have to pay or that they might not be able to pay. What they do is they ask for a payment program, so whether you're here legally or illegally, you have to pay at the hospital. We don't pay for them. We don't. We really don't."

This afternoon at 4:30, learn how the language barriers are overcome at a local hospital. This program is available on the web at For KSMU and the Sense of Community Series, I’m Michele Skalicky.