Bill would create health program for farm workers

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(Host) The immigrant workers on Vermont dairy farms rarely get even the most basic health care. They don’t have health insurance – and they’re all but invisible to most Vermonters.

A bill in the Legislature would create a public health program for farmworkers. The legislation says they would be eligible for care, regardless of their legal status in this country.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The legislation grew out of a study done last year on the health needs of Vermont’s migrant farm workers.

The Health Department study found that many workers were not getting basic care, including prenatal visits and immunizations. Cheryl Mitchell is a public health specialist from UVM who worked on the study.

(Mitchell) “There were some issues that the workers were dealing with, such as speaking a second language, lack of transportation, the dynamic – sort of the employer and employee dynamic – so that you couldn’t really ask to leave the farm to get health care if you needed it. And particularly, a climate of fear that if you left the farm to get health care you would be picked up by police and you would be deported.”

(Dillon) Mitchell told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that the legislation is not designed to add farm workers to the state’s Catamount Health program, which covers the un-insured. But under the bill, doctors and clinics would get reimbursed for providing basic, preventive care.

(Mitchell) “It’s very much focused on preventive care, to do screenings, vaccinations, education around the importance of vaccinations.”

(Dillon) There are about 2,500 workers – mainly Mexicans – employed on Vermont dairy farms. The legislation would cover them, as well as undocumented workers in the food service industry.

Luz Felix-Marquez is a UVM medical student who helped establish a mobile health clinic for the farmworkers. She found that workers – and the farmers who employ them – are often reluctant to see a doctor in all but the most serious emergencies.

(Marquez) “And it’s not that they don’t realize that that they’re sick. It’s just that whatever they’re experiencing isn’t impeding their work. And until it impedes their work, that’s when they’re going to access care.”

(Dillon) The bill says the workers would qualify for basic health services, regardless of whether they’re a legal resident.

That’s an important provision, says Addison Senator Claire Ayer, who introduced the bill.

(Ayer) “The jobs that very often illegal migrant workers have are jobs that Vermonters don’t want. It isn’t that they’re displacing people, and that eventually we’ll take back the jobs. People don’t want them. So we need them to keep our dairy economy, our ski economy, and in some cases our food service economy going. We need them. It’s a fact of life, and we need to take care of them, too.”

(Dillon) The bill is at a very early stage of legislative review. Senator Ayer said it’s likely to get changed as it moves through the committee process.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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