Sunday, April 20, 2008

Crucial Health News for "The Others"

Sometimes "It's a matter of life and death" is neither melodrama nor self-pity nor hopeless regret. Instead, in some cases, seemingly simple things people can do make all the difference for others.

Last week's multi-cultural lunch launch at the old Sears showed what good-headed, good-hearted progressive types can do...particularly when backed up with working capital. Moreover, the New England Newswire's health coverage project involves several long-term lefty leaders.

The short of it is that four grants are combined into seed funds to provide key health issues and resources to a slew of underserved communities. Particularly to those who do not easily understand written or spoken English, that's huge.

New England Ethnic Newswire has been perking for two years. The health angle is new.

A major player in this latest effort is former Senator Jarrett Barrios. On paper, he's the president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts foundation, one of the health project sponsors. Those of us who have seen him fighting for marriage equality or other progressive causes know he'd be more than that. In fact, he made it happen, say the reps for the other sponsors, The Boston Foundation, Partners Healthcare, and MetroWest Health Care Foundation.

In turn, each told of how a very wired Barrios called, said his foundation was kicking in $25,000 to start this effort and encouraging them to do the same. They said they agreed after hearing about the project. Barrios added with a laugh that they probably were thinking they'd have agreed to anything to get off the phone with him. (Enjoy the still, pensive pic of him here.)

The key idea is to piggyback on the existing newswire, kind of an Associated Press for smaller broadcast and print media, whose audiences are not served or not served well by larger MSM. Particularly for the many and varied non-English speakers, having any understandable access to important health information is a big leap.

Barrios said that he became aware of this issue as a senator. Some of his constituents told him they did not have access to health-care information and processes. They were sick or worse because of simple ignorance. Some were literally dying because they did not know what was available or if they could afford access to what they or their families needed.

The existing newswire covers the range of diverse area communities, which you can see on the partners page. That would be from Chinese to Portuguese to Polish to Haitian to Korean to Irish to India to Spanish to Armenian and on. Already in other news areas, these media share important stories that the others can run.

(On the main site, click Channels at the top to get a sense of what's on offer.)

This works in large part because they consider themselves partners and not competitors. Consider the different audiences for such papers as The Jewish Advocate, The Brazilian Journal and The Boston-Bay State Banner.

The health project adds regular and special coverage. In addition to health-related stories each will report, the newswire (Newz on their cards) will provide more pieces like editor Mary Thang's Understanding Drug Labels When You Don't Read or Speak English. She writes some health articles already and will be doing more.

A star at the lunch was Eduardo Amaral de Oliveira, Newz' heath reporter. (Shown at right with his notes in hand.) A native Brazilian, he is already turning out a stream of news and investigative features on health. For example, a recent piece was on a B.U. doctor, Milagros Abreu, who has seen that over 1,000 Latino families who had never had health insurance got it.

He too is passionate and impatient about the many in this area who are underserved. He notes that media often do not find essential issues about knowledge of and access to care as exciting as sensational angles. For example, he broke the piece on the Brazilian doctor whose Framingham basement liposuction ended up with a dead patient. Many media outlets contacted him, "but all they wanted to ask about was the immigration status" of those involved.

Instead, he notes that the questions about immigrant and new citizen health care is much more complex, going beyond language as well. It's "culture, family and education," he says.

Several speakers discussed how serious and pervasive these problems are. Allison Bauer, senior program officer for the Boston Foundation cited the report The Boston Paradox: Lots of Health Care, Not Enough Health as a good reference point. Barrios elaborated on the cycle in which, "You cant get access and they can't get to you to make their programs and policies a success."

As the launch wrapped up, I developed the uneasy feeling that this was all well and good, but what if Amaral de Oliveira suddenly disappeared? Is he such a linchpin that the coverage would collapse?

Frank Herron, Newz' editor, said they were covered. As important as the health reporter's pieces are, between the other media's contributions and Thang's, they'd be steaming along.

Want to Help? It turns out that there is a pressing need for volunteer translators for Newz. Professional services, particularly for medical and health topics are pricey, too pricey for current funding. If you can work in any of these languages, drop Herron an email.

By the bye, in addition to Barrios, another chum connected with this effort is Susan Ryan-Vollmar, the former BayWindows and South End News editor in chief. She's the BCBS foundation's communications director, still doing good but in a different location.

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