Rosa Ventura, a Salvadoran immigrant, was told she could not qualify for MassHealth because she could not produce paycheck stubs. For three years, going to the doctor meant paying as much as $50 per office visit. When her eldest son, who has cerebral palsy, needed special leg braces, she had to scrape together $2,000.
Then last year, a community healthcare initiative called the Latino Health Insurance Program helped Ventura apply for MassHealth, Commonwealth Care, and the state's subsidized health insurance program, and helped her get disability benefits for her son.
"It changed my life," Ventura said during a recent interview conducted in Spanish. "I even cried."
The program is run by the Boston University School of Public Health and administered in East Boston. Organizers, who want to start a similar program in Framingham to serve the town's large number of uninsured Latinos and Brazilians, have enlisted the support of 25 local church congregations and 15 volunteers.
Latinos are less likely to have health insurance or a primary care physician and more likely to use emergency care services for routine problems, according to Milagros Abreu, a postgraduate fellow at the BU School of Public Health and the pro gram's director.
"It is necessary and mandatory for people to receive care for easily preventable diseases," she said. "Clinics and hospitals have an obligation to the community."
More than 230 people obtained health insurance through the East Boston program, Abreu said.
The program's objective is to increase the number of Latino and Brazilian residents enrolled in health insurance programs, and to promote preventive care through monthly workshops. Abreu partnered with a local activist group in Framingham, the Brazilian American Association, to enlist community leaders to be trained as case managers and help enroll people in eligible state programs.
Organizers are trying to meet the state's Dec. 31 deadline for residents to obtain mandatory health insurance. The program has applied for a grant from the MetroWest Community Healthcare Foundation.
According to the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an annual survey that tracks national health trends, 22.6 percent of Latinos in Boston's western suburbs lacked health insurance.
And a 2001 study by the Wayside Youth & Family Support Network found that 93 percent of Brazilians in Framingham, Marlborough, and Milford had no health insurance.
Ilma Paixão, an activist with the Brazilian group, known as BRAMAS, said access to healthcare has been an obstacle for the local community because people aren't aware of programs for which they might be eligible.
"Some people would pay for insurance if they just knew how to apply for it," she said. "It's a lack of information."
Although the state's health insurance programs are not available to undocumented immigrants, other programs, such as Health Safety Net, or Free Care, do not consider immigration status, Abreu said. As such, the state cannot penalize those people if they cannot obtain health insurance, she said.
For Brazilian patients, the biggest barriers to care are language and lack of insurance, said Janet Yardley, medical director of the Framingham Community Health Center and chief medical officer of the Great Brook Valley Health Center of Worcester.
At the Framingham clinic, 56.6 percent of the patients are Brazilian and 22.6 percent are Latino, according to Yardley. Of those, 69 percent of the Brazilians are uninsured, as are 20 percent of the Latinos.
Latinos might find it a little easier than Brazilians, with Portuguese as their native language, to access the healthcare system, Yardley said.
"There's more people who speak and understand Spanish," she said. "More of the Latinos are eligible for health insurance because they've been here longer."
For Marie Aldana, a Framingham volunteer, helping the uninsured is something she wants to do to give back for the help she and her family received.
"The program is very important because we're helping people get health insurance," said Aldana, whose husband spent 15 years without coverage. "The program is worth supporting."