Pandemic puts spotlight on high uninsured rates among Latino families

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Nayeli Garcia and her family don't have health insurance.

"We don't get routine checkups like when you go every year," Garcia said. "We only go to the doctor when we really don't feel well."

Her husband had to go to the hospital recently. The Durham residents racked up a bill in the thousands of dollars.

"It's a lot of money," said Garcia, who moved to the Triangle from Mexico 10 years ago.

Garcia and her family are not alone.

In nearly all of the country's largest metros, Latinos are uninsured at least twice the rate of Anglo-Americans according to data from the US Census American Community Survey. The largest disparity can be found in the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area, which includes Durham, Orange, Chatham, Granville and Person Counties. 37 percent of Latinos are uninsured compared to 5 percent of Anglo-Americans.

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In the Raleigh-Cary metro area, which includes Wake, Franklin and Johnston Counties, 32 percent of Latinos are uninsured compared to 5 percent of Anglos.

"(The numbers are) really distressing," said Dr. Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti, of Duke Health. "We want a community that is well, well enough to go to school, well enough to go to work. And when you don't have access to health care, that's really prohibitive for a lot of families."

"I think it's ironic that there are these gaps in that we have Latinos with the highest uninsured rate, given the significant contributions to the economy in the labor force," said Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, of Duke Health. "There's a disconnect between having Latinos working in service industry. They are employed in food preparation, in building and grounds, in cleaning and maintenance, in construction in leisure and hospitality work and at the same time we see lack of insurance."

Duke Latina doctors Maradiaga Panayotti and Martinez-Bianchi co-founded the group LATIN-19 in response to the effect of COVID-19 on the Latino community in North Carolina.

"Hopefully one day when COVID is in the rearview mirror, how can we continue to bolster the systems that can provide equitable health care for our community because COVID has really magnified so many disproportionate effects that were there already and now has shone a brighter light," Panayotti said.

Martinez-Bianchi said it's important to understand whether many members of the Latino community are employed in the informal economy, without access to benefits.

"It's a newer community in North Carolina with a lot of internal, both in-country migration and from other countries and so, what is the access, what is the information, what are the channels that can include people," Martinez-Bianchi said.

While LATIN-19 hasn't yet tackled the issue of health insurance, Martinez-Bianchi said they'll try to understand the problem and try to find solutions so they can help increase access to health insurance.

"It's very concerning, and we hope that leaders, policymakers and decision makers will see that the more people have adequate access to health care, the community will thrive, the economy will thrive, our education system will thrive," Panayotti said. "While we don't do that, it's at our peril."

Garcia and her husband, Enrique Castillo, have an 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

She and her husband both work part-time. She said their hours were cut because of the pandemic.

"The majority of places where we've been working, restaurants or places like that, they don't offer you insurance," Garcia said. "The majority of insurances are always expensive and they're not accessible."

Her husband will need medical treatments for an illness and may have to cut his hours even more.

"In reality, it's something that worries me," Garcia said.
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