Fearful immigrants avoid medical care

Ryan Summerlin
Mountain Family Health Centers family nurse practitioner Jenny Lang interacts with 2-year-old Airam Briseno, who was at the health center with her mom, Gloria Gonzalez, for a check-up.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

Latino health fair

Mountain Family Health Centers is holding a Latino Health Fair at Basalt High School on Sunday, Nov. 5.

Participants will have access to a lab panel for $35, testing for blood, thyroid, liver and cholesterol health. The lab panel can be paid for with cash or a credit card.

Many free services will be available as well, including dental screening, teeth varnishing for children, blood pressure checks, testing for body mass index, testing for glucose and pulmonary function, as well as diabetes education.

The health fair will run from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

For information on Mountain Family services, visit or call 970-945-2840.

Uncertainty over the direction of national immigration policy creates a cloud of fear that shows up in lots of different symptoms. It might be parents hesitant to attend school sporting events or an undocumented driver who flees the scene of a crash.

Local law enforcement leaders have repeatedly assured undocumented immigrants that they won’t be targeted if they report crimes. The Garfield County sheriff and police chiefs worry that many immigrants will be victimized and never turn to law enforcement for help out of fear that they’ll be deported.

That fear also keeps immigrants from seeking other kinds of services, even important medical treatments.

In the Roaring Fork Valley and Eagle County, Mountain Family Health Centers has been working to break down that barrier and actively seeks out and encourages immigrants to get the health care they need. The organization has been serving low-income families since the 1970s, and immigrant families are a big segment of the patients.

Its first clinic in the Roaring Fork Valley came to Glenwood Springs in the ‘90s, and over the past decade the Mountain Family network has grown rapidly to cover Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties.

“That rapid growth has not been driven by a desire to dominate the market or make money off people, but from the needs of the local families who can’t afford care,” said Ross Brooks, chief executive officer of Mountain Family. “And a large subset of that is low-income first- and second-generation immigrant families.”

About 50 percent of Mountain Family’s patients are primarily Spanish speakers. The mainstream medical care market doesn’t always recognize the needs of immigrant families, who are often quieted and shunned behind the scenes, said Brooks. “We help immigrant families overcome barriers and isolation, and the fears our immigrant families are facing in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Thousands of people in the community won’t go to the doctor or apply for Medicaid because they fear it will mean putting their families at risk of deportation, he said. Immigrant families who are otherwise trying to keep a low profile will often first engage with their children’s schools and their faith communities. Medical-care providers, on the other hand, are some of the last in line of institutions these families will be comfortable with, said Brooks.

One of the biggest challenges is simply getting these families in the door, so instead of waiting, the organization’s solution is to go to them.

Making sure that people are getting basic primary care saves money for the health-care industry as a whole and taxpayers as a whole. Mountain Family’s data shows that cutting down unnecessary emergency room and hospital visits save a little more than $15 million per year in the region, Brooks said.

The majority of Mountain Family’s staff is bilingual, and many are first-generation immigrants themselves. Some are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or they have children who are DACA recipients. So they have a unique ability to work one-on-one with these families and build trust.

“Our greatest marketing technique is word of mouth,” said Brooks.

Mountain Family has eight clinics spread across Garfield and Eagle counties, with its main offices located in Glenwood. And its clinic in Basalt draws a lot of patients from Pitkin County as well. In total the organization serves 18,500 patients, and the organization has outreach and enrollment workers who can work with immigrant families at every clinic.

Mountain Family has outreach and enrollment workers who go out to the churches, especially Spanish-language churches, to connect with these families. The organization also works in partnership with Valley Settlement Project, which also works to bridge the gap and dispel myths for the valley’s immigrant families, said Brooks. Once they’ve built that trust level, Valley Settlement refer patients to Mountain Family.

There’s a significant fear that, even if their children are Medicaid-eligible or on Medicaid, simply bringing them into a clinic puts them at risk for deportation, or that immigration officials are going to raid an undocumented family member, he said.

Avoiding health care then leads to downstream costs; people spend more money because they’re going to the hospital or emergency room unnecessarily, and ultimately people die earlier because they just won’t come in, he said.

Across Mountain Family’s service area are an estimated 36,000 people living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is the mark Mountain Family considers less than a sustainable wage. For a single person, that’s less than $24,000 per year, and for a family of four that’s less than $49,000. And, of course, this is the Roaring Fork Valley with an extraordinarily higher cost of living, Brooks added.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.