Taking the pulse of a community


For many, finding adequate medical care for their families is a big campaign issue

Maryland Votes 2006

15 Days Until Nov. 7

October 23, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

ADELPHI -- It's pouring rain and Delia Aguilar is clasping a clipboard to her chest, racing between low-slung brick apartment buildings to stay dry.

The community organizer is conducting a tenant survey at the Hampton on the Park complex for the Prince George's County Health Department, to see if the county needs to do more to ensure that its poor - working or not - get proper health care.

"There are a lot of people who don't have health insurance, either because it's too expensive or they don't work in a place that provides it," Aguilar says. "They know they need it, that their kids need it, but they still need to eat, still need a place to live.

"They're always praying not to get sick."

Not unlike politicians trolling for votes in this election season, Aguilar is going from door to door to take the pulse of her community. As Election Day closes in, residents have much on their minds as they consider for whom they will vote Nov. 7 and what issues they want to hear elected officials talk more about. Some of it makes for uncomfortable conversations when people in these inner Capital Beltway neighborhoods - as in many across the state - wonder how they will find adequate medical care for their families.

In Prince George's County, about 90,000 residents are without health insurance; in Maryland, the number is believed to top 800,000. Nationally, it is becoming an epidemic, as the cost of premiums continues to rise at a pace faster than inflation and wages. Even middle-class families are finding that affordable health care is no longer a guaranteed job benefit.

"The conventional wisdom is that they [the uninsured] don't have jobs, but that's not [always] the case," said Ben Steffen, director of the Center for Information Services and Analysis at the Maryland Health Care Commission.

Politicians in the year's major races have talked some about health care issues - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has pitched an expansion of access to health care while his Democratic challenger, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, has discussed ways to counter a nursing shortage. In the U.S. Senate race, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin promised a cancer cure by 2015 while his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, said he wanted to allow the importation of cheaper Canadian drugs.

But, to many in the state's second most-populous jurisdiction, it's not enough. Health care, they say, is all but ignored as a major issue unless officials are pressed by activists in their community.

"You've got to put it in their face," said Sylvia L. Quinton, a public health lawyer turned advocate who is a founder of the county's Health Action Forum. "Their issues are education, the economy and crime. They do not add health care."

As Aguilar goes from apartment to apartment, rapping on the large brass knockers that adorn each brick-red door, she encounters a cross section of lower-income Marylanders. Some are newcomers to the United States, many speak little or no English, many find themselves without steady jobs and - by extension - without medical insurance.

When Aguilar asks Ana Julia Ferman, a grandmother from El Salvador, whether anyone in her household has health insurance, the answer is swift. "Nadie," Ferman says. Nadie is Spanish for nobody.

Ferman stands in the doorway in her brightly colored apron. She has been flattening balls of dough into tortillas and cooking them on a cookie sheet across two burners on her stove. She worries about not having health insurance - without legal immigration papers she isn't eligible, she says - but, for now, it is her reality, no matter how frustrating. If she gets sick, she says, she calls a daughter back in El Salvador, who in turn calls a doctor there who sends medicine.

But to Ferman, her well-being is important. She won't scrimp on annual checkups and mammograms. She just finds the cash somehow to pay for them. Ferman says she "prefers to stop eating for a week than not go to the doctor."

Nearby, Marta Lara, a 40-year- old mother of two from El Salvador, makes a meager living baby-sitting for two other children. On a recent afternoon, with one television tuned to Spanish-language soap operas and another tuned to English-language cartoons for her 8-year-old, she sat in her living room and explained her plight. No green card. No health insurance.

She hasn't been to the doctor, she said, since her younger son was born four years ago.

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, said his group is championing a proposal that would raise the cigarette tax by $1 a pack to get health insurance for 50,000 more Marylanders. He said a number of Prince George's County legislators back the plan, though neither gubernatorial candidate has signed on.

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