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A Health Checkup on Latinos : More likely to lack insurance, more likely to have medical problems

January 13, 1991

Sometime in the next decade Latinos, already the largest minority group in California, are expected to become the largest minority group in the nation. With that growth comes some large problems. Health care and insurance are among the most serious, as spelled out in disturbing detail in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Its collection of studies, surveys and government reports adds up to one of the most exhaustive examinations of the state of the health of the U.S. Latino population. Overall, the news is not encouraging. Latinos, along with African-Americans, tend to contract serious diseases more often, have less access to prompt treatment and therefore have more health complications than non-Latino whites.

Similarly, Latinos are up to three times more likely to develop diabetes, and when they do they are more likely to develop serious complications, such as blindness. Latinos are more likely to be sick with tuberculosis and hypertension. They also suffer disproportionately from cancers of the cervix, stomach, esophagus, breast and pancreas.

Latinos currently make up about 8% of the national population, but account for about 14% of all AIDS cases, about 21% of AIDS cases among women and 22% of cases among children.

It's no coincidence that Latinos also are the ethnic group most lacking health insurance. Nearly one-third, or 32% of Latinos nationwide, are uninsured, compared with 13% of the entire population. Among Mexican- Americans, the percentage of those uninsured is even higher: 37%. Although those from Mexico were more likely to be employed than other Latinos, researchers found that they were significantly less likely to be able to obtain health coverage from their employers.

Yet, noting the disparate findings in infant mortality rates among Latinos of different nationalities, Surgeon General Antonia Novello--herself a Latina born in Puerto Rico--cautions against overly broad health care policies designed to work for "all" Latinos. Even so, the findings in the Journal should be studied carefully by state and local health officials seeking to serve a large and growing Latino population. For instance, the state Department of Health Services says more than one in three Latinas who gave birth in 1988 received no prenatal care during the critical first three months of pregnancy. That's not only a terrible health risk to those untended mothers and babies, but an unacceptable long-term societal risk.

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