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Mexican consulates offer healthcare help

May 31, 2007|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writers

First came the Mexican consular photo identification cards that closely resembled U.S. driver's licenses and allowed immigrants, including those in the country illegally, to establish credit and apply for government services.

Then the Mexican government worked with the Treasury Department to make sure the U.S. banking system remained open to immigrants.

Now Mexican consulates in the U.S. are taking on an even more formidable challenge: the healthcare system.

A program called Ventanillas de Salud, or Health Windows, aims to provide Mexican immigrants with basic health information, cholesterol checks and other preventive tests. It also makes referrals to U.S. hospitals, health centers and government programs where patients can get care without fear of being turned over to immigration authorities.

"Being undocumented, we thought we didn't have the right to certain things," said Rosalba Hernandez, 26, who came to the U.S. two years ago and lives in Panorama City. "We were scared to ask for information."

Hernandez, a housecleaner, and her boyfriend, a gardener, said they rarely go to the doctor because of treatment costs and fear of deportation. But after a visit to the Mexican Consulate last week to get her consular ID card, Hernandez now knows she can get affordable insurance and free access to some government health services.

Launched in 2003 in Los Angeles and San Diego, the Ventanillas program is currently operating in 11 cities, including Chicago and Houston, and the goal is to have a version in all 47 Mexican consulates around the country.

"Health-related issues are a very important absent piece of information," said Ruben Beltran, Mexican consul general in Los Angeles. "We're filling the blanks.... The consulate is the prime location to disseminate that information to the Mexican community."

But critics say that illegal immigrants are already an unchecked drain on the public healthcare system and that such programs will only allow them to reap even more benefits.

"It facilitates people remaining in the country illegally," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Clearly it is a policy of the Mexican government ... to get all the institutions in the U.S. to provide services to their citizens who are living here illegally."

Mehlman said Los Angeles County, especially, should not be partnering with the consulate to provide health services. "The county is broke, they are cutting back on services, they are closing emergency rooms, yet they are dreaming up new ways to provide benefits to illegal aliens," he said. "It's lunacy."

Health services to illegal immigrants in Los Angeles County cost the Medi-Cal program nearly $440 million in 2005, according to the California Department of Health Services. Statewide, that number was more than $1.1 billion last year.

Nevertheless, some recent research indicates that many illegal immigrants don't regularly use the public healthcare system. A Rand Corp. study published last year found that adult immigrants in general, and the undocumented in particular, consume fewer healthcare resources per person than the native-born. In part that's because immigrants are younger and healthier, and because they are less likely to have health insurance, the study found.

Illegal immigrants are not eligible to enroll in major government health insurance programs such as Medicare, Medicaid (known in California as Medi-Cal) and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. In recent years, eligibility rules have been tightened to exclude even some legal immigrants.

At the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles last week, Graciela Cazeres, 41, said she wanted to get medical insurance but thought all companies required her to have a green card.

A nanny in Beverly Hills, Cazeres was in a car accident with her boss and injured her knee. If her employer had not paid for the operation, Cazeres said, she doesn't know what she would have done.

Consul Beltran said the Ventanillas program saves the county money by encouraging immigrants to seek preventive care, rather than waiting until they need much more expensive emergency care. Since the inception of the program, Beltran said, more than 286,000 Mexicans in Los Angeles have received information and referrals and more than 12,000 have received services they learned about through Ventanillas.

On a recent day at the consulate, while immigrants waited to get their consular ID cards, they listened to a charla -- or chat -- in Spanish about clogged arteries, healthy diets, the causes of asthma and the dangers of buying Mexican prescription drugs under the table.

Socorro Alanis, a community worker from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, also explained that pregnant women and infants are entitled to immunization and nutritional benefits through the federal program Women, Infants and Children, regardless of their legal status.

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