Language barrier can be an obstacle for immigrants accessing health care


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Language barriers, cultural differences, and complicated health care forms are a few of the challenges keeping recent immigrants from getting adequate health care.

Octavio Hernandez, program coordinator of Community Health Programs here, regularly works with a growing Hispanic population in southern Berkshire County. He said the federal MassHealth program for low-income people and the state-subsidized Common wealth Care Health Insurance are available to all, but underused by non-English-speaking ethnic groups.

"They don't even open the letter because they don't understand this ambiguous communication," Hernandez said. "They don't know what it's intended to do."

In Massachusetts, it is manda tory for everyone to have health insurance. Those who don't face a penalty on their income taxes. There are exemptions for religion reasons and for individuals with incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, and other reasons.

Undocumented immigrants, who are are not eligible for Common wealth Care or MassHealth, typically rely on the safety net of community clinics and emergency-room services, Hernandez said.

Since the beginning of the year, there's been a renewed statewide push to get ethnic minorities to sign up for insurance. Ten minority-advocate groups, including Boston-based Health Care for All, have been contracted by the state to inform small-business owners of their options for insuring their workers.

According to Health Care for All, 98 percent of Massachusetts residents are insured, but 2 percent are not. They might not be insured because they have recently moved to the state, are changing jobs, or like some immigrants, are not informed about available re sources, public health officials say.

Maria Gonzalez Albuixech, communications director of Health Care for All, said the immigrant outreach includes advertisements on ethnic-media radio and newspaper and public service announcements.

Healthcare for All is also working with the Springfield-based Latino Chamber of Commerce and reaching out to a growing Portuguese-speaking Brazilian community.

"They don't have the appropriate information about health care options for them," said Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce President Carlos Gonzalez. "Many are opting for the lowest-cost insurance [when they could do better]."

Charles Joffe-Halpern, executive director of North Adams-based nonprofit Ecu-Health Care, which helps low-income people get access to health care, said there is insurance available to people, such as Commonwealth Care and MassHealth.

For example, Commonwealth Care is available to individuals with an income up to $34,470 and to a family of four with an income up to $70,650.

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