News & Events

This clinic dispenses an invitation to health

By Meghan E. Irons, Globe Staff  |  April 28, 2010

As his mother gently undressed him for another weigh-in at South End Community Health Center yesterday, 5-day-old Gianmarco let out a startling cry.

“Mi amor,’’ cooed Ynes Minllety, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, calming her infant boy. Before Gianmarco was born, Minllety worried that she could not pay for health coverage for her son and that she would have to take a second job. But because of her low income, her son qualifies for Medicaid.

“I just didn’t know,’’ she said.

Such lack of awareness — with factors like poor education, a patient’s immigration status, and language barriers — is keeping thousands of Latino children across the state from getting health coverage that is free and available, health officials said yesterday.

Now, the center is launching a communitywide effort that is taking the message of free health care to the people.

“The average advertising is not going to work to bring these people in,’’ said Bob Johnson, the center’s executive director. “You need to go into the nooks and crannies to find them.’’

The center received more than $304,000 in federal grants to take on a challenge from the US Health and Human Services Department to go into local communities and find the children who do not have health insurance but are eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

With money in hand, the center has set out to reach 1,500 uninsured children in the Boston area, a majority of whom have parents who are undocumented Latinos who have not signed up for the free health coverage because they fear it could lead to deportation.

Massachusetts has universal health coverage, but thousands of those eligible for free care do not take advantage of it, Johnson said at a press conference yesterday.

He said the health center is no longer waiting for the people lingering in the shadows.

Last fall, the center established its outreach effort called Los Niños Cuentan (Children Count) and hired case workers and outreach workers to knock on immigrants’ doors, hold informational sessions at churches, and make alliances with community groups to generate referrals in East Boston, Chelsea, Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston.

The workers are seeking any immigrant with a child, to tell them there is nothing to fear when getting health coverage.

“They are reluctant at first,’’ said Rosette Martinez, who heads the outreach team. “If they are undocumented, there is fear, because they don’t know who is going to be seeing the information.’’

Pablo Hernandez, the health center’s medical director, said distrust among some Latinos is difficult to eradicate.

“I tell people that if they come to the center for medical services, they can trust that their information is protected,’’ Hernandez said. “Our concern is medical services, and not anything else.’’

Established in 1969, South End Community Health Center is the largest provider of care to the Latino community in Greater Boston. Nearly 8,000 of its 13,000 patients are Latino, and roughly 1,100 are homeless.

A majority of staff members at the center speak Spanish and have served former and current South End Latinos.

The South End health center is one of 69 organizations in 41 states and the District of Columbia that received a slice of $40 million in grants last fall from the US Health and Human Services Department to help hunt for uninsured children.

Health Care for All, which is based in Boston, also received nearly $411,000 in federal grants.

Minllety, a 23-year-old who lives in Newton, said she was expressing her worries over health care for her son when a health insurance coordinator at the South End center told her to apply for Medicaid.

Now she worries less about Gianmarco’s doctor visits. Costs associated with his birth are covered under the program, as are all his health care needs, including treatment for jaundice.

At his 5-day-old visit to the doctor yesterday, Gianmarco had a pediatrician check his head, neck, and stomach, and his circumcision. All was well.

“A lot of people like myself don’t know where to go for help,’’ Minlletty said. “They don’t know that programs like this exist.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at