Thursday, April 18, 2024

GUEST BLOGGER SERIES: Rudy Ruiz, "Public Option: Much-Needed Insurance for Latinos"


Latinovations would like to thank Rudy Ruiz for his contribution to La Plaza.

Most people today are focused on health insurance reform. I’m concerned about ensuring that the Latino community’s needs are fully met by such a reform.

There are approximately 46 million uninsured Americans. About 1/3rd of those are Latinos. And according to the White House, 34% of Latinos lack health insurance.

“Latinos are by far the largest group of uninsured,” President Obama said. “Passing reform that addresses the vulnerability of this community is a critical pillar for a new economy.”

So how do we ensure reform meets not only the exigencies of reluctant Republicans and balking Blue Dogs but also the urgencies of the Latino uninsured?

Digging into the numbers and my experiences as a public policy communicator, I believe the Public Option is crucial to meet the needs of underserved communities.

Our privately-run health care system has failed minority groups dismally for generations, contributing to deadly health disparities among Latinos and Blacks. I’m not convinced regulating the same old health insurance providers while squeezing their budgets will create the paradigm shift required to radically alter this industry’s approach to the unique challenges Latinos face. According to the Office of Minority Health, “Hispanic health is often shaped by factors such as language/cultural barriers, lack of access to preventive care, and the lack of health insurance.” Making matters worse, Corporate America faces cultural obstacles of its own in tackling minority health needs.

My skepticism is informed by my experiences at Interlex, the advocacy marketing agency I co-founded in 1995, through which I’ve worked with the American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, numerous State health departments, and over a dozen hospitals.

At one point, Interlex was engaged by an insurance company specializing in illnesses that severely impact Latinos. The company – devoid of Latino executives – required assistance connecting with our community. We flew into action. The first obstacle was that they had not allocated time for developing culturally relevant materials, forcing us to merely translate their CMS-approved copy to hit their launch date. Accustomed to creating in-culture communications, we were chagrinned but determined to introduce Latinos to this important resource for their prevalent conditions. We overcame the content challenge via imagery and a grassroots team penetrating barrios and churches with the potent air cover of a multimedia campaign. Response exceeded the client’s goals. Then the second obstacle emerged. Insufficient leads were converting into customers. Among those enrolled, retention suffered. What was wrong? We discovered the answer speaking with patients. The health insurance company with the plan designed and marketed for Latinos had failed to hire bilingual salespeople, customer service representatives and clinicians to sell the plan and deliver the care. How did they correct this? Did they hire and train new personnel? Did they regroup and reengineer their approach to be more culturally relevant? No. Instead they pulled the plug on their Latino effort altogether. Servicing Latino customers – given their special needs – was more costly than projected and the returns less lucrative than anticipated. Latino patients were simply not “good business.” So, adios, amigos.

Welcome to traditionally underserved communities. If they were easier to serve and if corporations better understood how to profit doing so, they wouldn’t be neglected. Health disparities might become a distant memory of vanquished social injustice.

That’s why the Public Option is vital. It will provide a recourse for those not adequately – or equitably – served by private insurers. Through my work with government health agencies, I’ve found they’re largely comprised of fair-minded civil servants with a genuine concern for traditionally underserved audiences. They draw on extensive experience conducting outreach and purveying assistance to low-income Latinos. In Texas, when Interlex served the Department of Health, 66% of WIC’s client base was Latino. You better believe we were developing in-culture, in-language materials and they were providing service in Spanish. Public health professionals with this base of experience can build on the effectiveness of programs like Medicaid and WIC to cover and serve the 15 million uninsured Latinos. And they don’t operate under the pressure of hitting profit goals to earn bonuses at the expense of patients.

The President – buoyed by Latino leaders – should champion a Public Option within health care reform.

According to the National Hispanic Medical Association’s president, Elena Rios: “Hispanics have the worst record in terms of [health disparities.] We have the most to gain in terms of health reform.”

I couldn’t agree more. While I’m fortunate enough to be covered, I’d welcome a little insurance that health reform will truly help all people in need, including Latinos.

Rudy Ruiz founded, a site featuring multicultural political commentary; hosts a nationally syndicated Spanish-language radio show; and authored a guide to success for immigrants (“¡Adelante!” published by Random House). He is co-founder and president of Interlex, an advocacy marketing agency based in San Antonio, Texas.

Red Brown and Blue