Obamacare and Latinos in the Nation's Capital

Published on
July 13, 2013

When most people think of Washington, D.C., the White House, the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian, and other tourist destinations usually come to mind. But Washington is also home to a growing number of Latino residents, including many Central Americans who first came to the United States fleeing their region's civil unrest. Washington, in fact, has the country's second-largest community of Salvadoran Americans (second only to Los Angeles).

Like immigrant and minority communities across the country, Latinos in Washington have been hit hard by the economic downturn in the last several years, and depend very much on a whole variety of services, including healthcare, that have been cut because of lack of funding. 

As a 2013 National Health Journalism Fellow, I'll be looking at the anticipated shortage of health care providers once the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, is fully implemented next year, and its impact on the growing Latino community in Washington, D.C.   

The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that by 2020 the nationwide shortage of doctors will grow to more than 90,000. The Obama administration itself recognizes that shortage and has allocated $250 million to help “train and develop” 16,000 new healthcare professionals over the next five years, but that is not expected to keep up with demand in the Latino community, especially among dominant Spanish speakers.

Latinos comprise nearly ten percent of the population in the nation’s capital (having grown 20% in the last ten years alone) and most are from three immigrant countries – El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Fourteen percent of Latinos in Washington, D.C., live below the federal poverty level, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey, fully 29% of Latinos in Washington do not speak English “at all” or “not well.”

While the Affordable Care Act mandates that by next year Medicaid coverage will be expanded to cover families up to 133 percent of poverty guidelines and that health insurance subsidies will be provided to help families with incomes up to 400% of poverty guidelines pay for that coverage, the law does not cover those who are undocumented immigrants.

Those immigrants are and will continue to turn to community organizations and clinics in the metropolitan area which are already seeing a spike in demand for services. According to the District of Columbia’s Office of Latino Affairs, even those Latino immigrants with legal status tend to rely more on community organizations and clinics for their healthcare. OLA cites several reasons, including language barriers. 

My project would examine how these agencies, community groups and clinics are coping with the demand for services and what are they doing despite dwindling resources to provide healthcare that is culturally relevant and in the language the growing Latino immigrant community understands.