Health experts from across the country and congressional members met to discuss the issue of insurance among the Latino population during the "National Uninsured Latinos Conference" held at The University of Texas-Pan American, in conjunction with the Raul Yzaguirre Policy Institute, May 21-22.
The conference served as the inaugural event of the new Raúl Yzaguirre Policy Institute at UTPA, which will be dedicated to the advancement of Hispanic leadership and scholarship, with the goal of helping bridge the gap between the theory and practice of public policy by drawing together experts from academia, government, business, and non-governmental organizations.
"At UTPA we have the human capital to make an enormous contribution to this country," said UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas, during the conference's welcoming address. "The Rio Grande Valley has been dealing with issues for more than 250 years that the rest of the nation is just becoming engaged in and we've worked it out. That's why the decision to focus the very first activity of the Raúl Yzaguirre Policy Institute - access to health care and insurance for all Americans - was framed within the context of the special needs of the Latino population."
Highlights of the conference included an introductory discussion on the consequences of uninsurance and the health policy challenges of covering uninsured Hispanics, followed by a panel session on the merits and the expected impact of several proposals on how to cover the uninsured.
The panel was comprised of politicians, professors, and leaders of health/social organizations. John Lumpkin, one of the panelists and the senior vice president and director of the Health Care Group, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told the crowd during his opening comments that he was reminded of an old proverb.
"He who has health has hope, and he who has hope has everything," Lumpkin said.
The topic for the session, "Moving from Policy Initiatives to Action," allowed panelists the opportunity to discuss the current health care situation in the United States, as well as solutions to making health care accessible to everyone, especially Latinos.
Henry Cisneros, chairman of CityView and former San Antonio mayor, served as the morning keynote speaker and told attendees the lack of health insurance specifically compromises health because people are less able to get access to care that would promote prevention of certain diseases.
"This conference deals with such a timely subject and it will allow us to get ahead of the discussion and to shape the debate," Cisneros told the more than 100 conference attendees.
Cisneros recommended five specific courses of action during his speech and said the United States should adopt a universal health care program; promote prevention strategies for diabetes, asthma and heart disease; engage the Latino population in promoting public health as a priority; encourage Hispanic students to pursue health careers; and focus policy advocacy of Latino organizations on quality health care.
"We need to create a system of insurance that recognizes the needs of all Americans and this conference has raised the urgency and priority and has shown us how to work on this issue," Cisneros said.
Former U.S. Senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards delivered the luncheon keynote address and talked about health care and poverty in America.
"What are we going to do, not just about health care, but what are we going to do to lift up all of the families in this country and address what I think is the great moral issue of our time. Thirty-seven million Americans wake up every day and worry not just about health care coverage, but worry about feeding their children, clothing their children and having a decent place to live," said Edwards, who is currently the director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I think that we - all of us collectively - have a huge moral responsibility to do something about this."
Edwards said he supports a universal health care plan and that the nation's current public health facilities need to be expanded.
"I think that universal health care is the solution to this issue," Edwards said. "First, we have to have a national dialogue and be willing to do something. This is an issue that touches virtually every family in America."
Edwards also said a national translation service should be available in hospitals across the country, so there is not a language barrier to providing health care services. He also said savings accounts need to be established for low-income families, in which the government would match the amounts families are able to save dollar-for-dollar.
Wesley Tahsir-Rodriguez, director of Health Policy, Community Initiatives, Latino Commission on AIDS in New York City, said it was imperative that he attend the conference considering he represented a national organization and the issue was of national importance.
"The speakers were excellent. John Edwards really brought home the message of the importance of the tie between poverty and uninsurance among Latinos and also the people living in the middle of income brackets who also should be able to have insurance. Often those people have a job but don't have enough to cover insurance costs like premiums and co-pays," Tahsir-Rodriguez said.
The third session focused on leadership and health policy research needs, specifically how foundations can get involved by identifying research needs and supporting policy-oriented research to move the agenda forward. The closing session focused on the perspectives from corporate America on how to cover the uninsured, particularly uninsured Latinos.
"Hopefully this conference will mobilize and create a relationship between the Raúl Yzaguirre Institute and elected officials outside of the area," Tahsir-Rodriguez said. "As we have seen here, there is great interest and buy-in from people on the border in South Texas. Now the idea is to take the message out to other communities, for example Florida, New York, New Jersey, and California where there are large Latino populations that will also mobilize behind this. There is power in numbers - that's the way I feel about it."
Other panelists and speakers for the conference included Dr. Kenneth Shine, executive vice chancellor for Health Affairs, The University of Texas System; Robert Mallett, senior vice president for Corporate Affairs, Pfizer Inc; Dr. Mark V. Pauly, Bendheim professor, professor of Health Care Systems, Business and Public Policy, Insurance and Risk Management, and Economics, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Elena Rios, president and CEO, National Hispanic Medical Association; Roberto Suro, director, Pew Hispanic Center; Al Zapanta, president and CEO, U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce; U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, TX-15; and U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, TX-16.
The conference culminated with recommendations and a report that will be made available on the Raúl Yzaguirre Web site at www.yzaguirre.org.
"I think the conference was able to bring together health policy researchers, legislators, business and community leaders, and advocates committed to a common goal - how to best provide health insurance coverage for the 14 million Latinos without access to affordable health care," said Dr. José A. Pagán, professor of economics and director of the Institute for Population Health Policy at UTPA. "Our goal was to bring together people with different views to see if we could find a common approach to covering the uninsured that would serve as the basis for a new legislative proposal or reform to provide universal coverage. The conference went very well and it was a great opportunity to show different stakeholders that UTPA is willing to assume a leadership role at the local, state, and national levels."
For more information about the National Uninsured Latinos Conference, contact Dr. Hector Aldape, project director for the Raúl Yzaguirre Policy Institute at 956/381-3361.