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Mexican Violence Leads to Dwindling Healthcare Options for Texans

October 13, 2011

SAN JUAN, Texas - Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, with nearly a quarter of the population lacking health coverage. In border regions, such as the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, the rate is even higher.

For decades, many residents routinely went to Mexico for cheap health care and medicine. That practice has nearly disappeared because of tighter border controls and drug-war-related security concerns, according to Ann Williams Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca, a self-help housing program based in San Juan. Just a few years ago, she says, crossing the border was common.

"We could travel back and forth easily. And then the first hurdle was the fact that you had to have a passport. And for low-income families, passports are very expensive. And the second hurdle is the violence in Mexico."

A recent survey found that 90 percent of Hidalgo County respondents who once relied on Mexico for their health-care needs say violence across the border is now "affecting their ability to receive adequate medical attention."

Access to dental care has become especially difficult, Cass says, and some people have resorted to pulling their own teeth. There is no shortage of providers in the region, she says, but with nearly half of Hidalgo residents uninsured or underinsured, money is a major obstacle.

"We have wonderful physicians. We have wonderful health-care facilities. But the challenge is that 40-some percent of our population cannot access it."

Making matters worse are conditions in the colonias. With no garbage pickup or sidewalks, children mostly stay indoors after school, getting little exercise. Childhood obesity, diabetes and asthma are common. Drainage systems are inadequate, so flood waters can remain for months after storms, exacerbating mold and insect problems.

Winter visitors to the region from northern states also used to cross the border for treatment and pharmaceuticals. Even some local schools used to save money by sending staff to Mexican health-care providers. That's all changing, says Cass, along with changing attitudes about the border itself.

"We are a bi-national region, and there's so much that we could do together, sharing our gifts and our resources. A border wall and a river - they do not keep germs out."

The best way to improve health care in the Valley, Cass says, would be to insure more Texans. Meanwhile, she adds, nonprofit organizations such as the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, of which Proyecto Azteca is a member, are spreading the word about available community clinics, government benefits and preventative ways to improve conditions in neighborhoods and households.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX