Gulf Watch: Don't blame immigrants for New Orleans' sorry health care system

A national civil rights group worries that a recent New York Times story about New Orleans' post-Katrina baby boom among Latinos-and the stress it's placing on the city's storm-devastated health care system-promotes prejudice against the people doing reconstruction's dirty work.

Written by the Times' Eduardo Porter, "Katrina Begets a Baby Boom by Immigrants" reports that "hundreds of babies" are being born to uninsured Latinos-some in the country legally, some illegally-who came to rebuild the flood-ruined city:

Because many immigrant mothers cannot afford to pay for prenatal care or delivery services, New Orleans's newest citizens are adding an unexpected load to the decimated health infrastructure in a city abandoned by many of its doctors. Much of the state-financed Charity Hospital system, which before Hurricane Katrina provided the bulk of care to New Orleans's uninsured and indigent population, remains closed.

The story quotes health care executives and providers discussing the surge they've seen in pregnant Latina patients and the challenges they present, from overcrowded prenatal care units to emergency-room deliveries.

In a post on the Advancement Project's Just Democracy Blog, Crystal Hill accuses the Times story of ignoring the shambles that Louisiana's health care system was in well before Katrina hit:

The reality is that there were already significant deficits in health care for low-income and uninsured people, most of whom were African Americans. According to a report release[d] earlier this year from the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, the pre-Katrina health care system was in crisis. Services for low-income and uninsured patients were decreasing as the number of uninsured was rising. Medical administrators were considering alternatives to the state-run charitable health system that was in place.

Indeed, the January 2006 Kaiser Commission report, "A Pre-Katrina Look at the Health Care Delivery System for Low-Income People in New Orleans," noted that pre-storm Louisiana already had higher-than-average rates of poverty, uninsurance and poor health, and large disparities in health status between blacks and whites. Observes Hill:

Beyond those sobering facts, the truth is that whether in this country legally or illegally, the people working to rebuild the devastated Gulf Coast deserve access to low-cost health care. The double standard that is becoming the backdrop for the immigration debate-it's alright for immigrants to work doing hard labor with the sweat of their brows, in New Orleans and other cities, but they are not entitled to any benefits, basic rights to living, health, and welfare, as are others who inhabit this country-must be shattered. Inaccurate and misleading characterizations of immigrant populations only serve to fuel the fallacy of the "immigration epidemic."

Since the storm, the Advancement Project has been working to protect the rights of immigrant workers in New Orleans. Along with the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition and the National Immigration Law Center, the group published the report "And Injustice for All: Workers' Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans" documenting poor working conditions for immigrants. And with the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, the Advancement Project helped workers camped at New Orleans' City Park negotiate better conditions with the contractor running the site.

The fact is, the health care crisis for New Orleans' racial minorities-Latino or African-American-did not begin with Katrina, Hill notes:

These groups are simply caught up in a system of institutionalized racism within the health care system that dates back more than 400 years. Historically, Latino migrants have been employed in physically demanding labor such as agricultural work, yet discriminated against in virtually all aspects of American life, including health care, on the basis of economics and race. ... As we read news reports that consistently place blame on immigrants for the ills of our society, including failing health care systems, we must read with a critical eye, understanding that in most cases immigration is not the real culprit; racism is.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any quick fix in store for New Orleans' decimated medical infrastructure. The Louisiana Recovery Authority last month approved $74 million in funding for a new teaching facility to replace Charity Hospital and recommended $226 million in future funding. However, that spending must be approved by the Bush administration, which has advocated instead for a system of government-subsidized private insurance policies.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt had hoped to create such a system-which would probably be more expensive than the Charity Hospital approach-by putting a Medicaid waiver in place by Jan. 1. However, that deadline has come and gone with no waiver in sight.

State Sen. Joe McPherson (D-Woodworth), chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, recently told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he would present his own health care reform plan to the legislature when it convenes in April.

In the meantime, though, the city's health care crisis continues to hurt residents of every race and immigration status.