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New initiative aimed at helping suburban immigrants access health care options

On Thursday, immigration advocates launched the “Immigrant Health Academy” and published a new report looking at barriers this population faces when trying to access health care.

Suzy Rojas, volunteer and community health worker at Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, poses for a picture during the launch of The Immigrant Health Academy, a two-year project that aims to improve immigrants’ access to healthcare by educating immigrant leaders in the suburbs about their rights and the healthcare system, at the Healthy Communities Foundation’s office in Riverside, Ill., Thursday morning, October 21, 2021. The project is spearheaded by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Arab American Family Services, Legal Council for Health Justice, Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, Shriver Center on Poverty Law and Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Suzy Rosas, volunteer and community health worker at Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, poses for a picture during the launch of The Immigrant Health Academy, a two-year project that aims to improve immigrants’ access to healthcare by educating immigrant leaders in the suburbs about their rights and the healthcare system, at the Healthy Communities Foundation’s office in Riverside, Ill., Thursday morning, October 21, 2021. The project is spearheaded by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Arab American Family Services, Legal Council for Health Justice, Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, Shriver Center on Poverty Law and Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Suzy Rosas felt frustrated as her family this summer tried to figure out how to pay for a costly surgery to remove an aneurysm from her mother’s brain.

Her 61-year-old mother doesn’t have insurance and is an undocumented immigrant. But Rosas, a volunteer with Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, had attended a workshop where a financial assistance program through Illinois hospitals was discussed as an option for immigrants. Her mother applied for it, and on Wednesday she underwent the two-hour surgery, she said.

“A lot of families are going through the same things — that’s why I’m here to share my story,” said Rosas, who showed a photo of her mother giving a thumbs up from the hospital room. “And if I didn’t know about the assistance, it wouldn’t have been possible for my mother to have the surgery.”

On Thursday, a coalition of advocates launched a new initiative called the “Immigrant Health Academy,” a two-year pilot project that will develop suburban immigrant leaders who will spread information about how these communities can access health care options despite their immigration status in the country. Rosas shared her family’s story Thursday at a news conference at Healthy Communities Foundation in suburban Riverside.

The initiative includes Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, Shriver Center on Poverty Law, the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, the Legal Council for Health Justice and the Arab American Family Services.

Dulce Ortiz, executive director of Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, hugs Luvia Quiñones, senior director of health policy at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, during the launch of The Immigrant Health Academy, a two-year project that aims to improve immigrants’ access to healthcare by educating immigrant leaders in the suburbs about their rights and the healthcare system, at the Healthy Communities Foundation’s office in Riverside, Ill., Thursday morning, October 21, 2021. The project is spearheaded by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Arab American Family Services, Legal Council for Health Justice, Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, Shriver Center on Poverty Law and Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project.
Dulce Ortiz, executive director of Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, hugs Luvia Quiñones, senior director of health policy at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, during the launch of The Immigrant Health Academy, a two-year project that aims to improve immigrants’ access to health care by educating immigrant leaders in the suburbs about their rights and the health care system, at the Healthy Communities Foundation’s office in Riverside, Ill., Thursday morning, Oct. 21, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As part of the launch, advocates also published a report detailing how language access, cultural barriers and a distrust in the government plays a role in why immigrants don’t access health care options when needed. During the coronavirus pandemic, some immigrants didn’t want to disclose any information when seeking a vaccine, and others withheld information that could have been useful for contact tracing, according to the report.

Edith Avila Olea, the policy manager for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, co-wrote the report and noted that even at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, immigrants were fearful of getting tested or going to a hospital to get treatment because of what information might be collected.

More than 3,800 Latinos across the state have died from COVID-19-related complications, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

She said some of those fears stemmed from the so-called public charge rule that would have denied immigrants permanent residency if they sought certain public benefits. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s administration announced it wouldn’t defend the rule in court, which stopped the implementation of the controversial changes.

“A lot of what we do is breaking down those misunderstandings and helping them understand that there are laws in place that will protect them whether that be HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) or just general confidentiality that exists when you go to a clinic or hospital setting,” Avila Olea said.

An attendee holds “Overcoming Barriers and Empowering Communities: The Immigrant Health Academy” during the launch of The Immigrant Health Academy, a two-year project that aims to improve immigrants’ access to healthcare by educating immigrant leaders in the suburbs about their rights and the healthcare system, at the Healthy Communities Foundation’s office in Riverside, Ill., Thursday morning, October 21, 2021. The project is spearheaded by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Arab American Family Services, Legal Council for Health Justice, Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, Shriver Center on Poverty Law and Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project.
An attendee holds “Overcoming Barriers and Empowering Communities: The Immigrant Health Academy” during the launch of The Immigrant Health Academy, a two-year project that aims to improve immigrants’ access to health care by educating immigrant leaders in the suburbs about their rights and the health care system, at the Healthy Communities Foundation’s office in Riverside, Ill., Thursday morning, Oct. 21, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The pilot academy will focus on suburban communities, though it could later include Chicago neighborhoods as well, she said.

“Once you step outside of the city, based on the Zip Code or city or the county that you’re living in, the services available to you changes vastly,” she said. “And we also know that there are more organizations in the city compared to the suburbs.”

Luvia Quiñones, the senior director of health policy for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said she saw firsthand how difficult it can be to access health care when her mother was diagnosed with cancer four years ago.

“This was despite us as her daughters speaking English, knowing what her rights were and having knowledge about health policy,” she said. “Despite working on health access issues for many years, this firsthand experience made me more aware of the challenges many people go through especially in our immigrant community. All I can think of was what do people do who are uninsured and undocumented.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.