HBO’s ‘Clinica de Migrantes’ highlights city’s bridges in health care

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The documentary is set to air on Monday from 10 to 10:40 p.m.

From left, Dr. Steven Larson, Mery Martinez and Daphine Owen appear in a scene from the HBO documentary

It was a combination of shared interests that lead Dr. Steven Larson and Max Pozdorovkin to meet at the Puentes De Salud facility on South Street in April 2015. While Larson wished to provide immigrants with preventative medicine, and Pozdorovkin wished to document and expose the day-to-day struggles they face, both ultimately hoped to see this population be granted access to basic health care.

In response to their shared goal, the two combined efforts to produce the HBO documentary, “Clinica de Migrantes,” which will debut on Monday, Sept. 25 from 10 to 10:40 p.m., during Hispanic Heritage Month, exclusively on HBO, which brings attention to the struggle of local immigrants to obtain basic health-care services. In doing so, Pozdorovkin shadowed student and doctor volunteers who run the clinic, designed to provide pro bono medical care to undocumented immigrants.

Seeing as undocumented immigrants are unable to purchase health insurance and receive no regular medical care by law, many of these people are forced to bypass preventive or comprehensive medicine, and therefore must seek out an emergency room once symptoms worsen or become extreme. According to Larson, this is increasingly problematic because, as immigrants are forced to seek out emergency room settings, this ties up resources and forces health-care systems to absorb much of the expense.

“One way or the other, resources are limited. We have thousands of patients at the clinic who make roughly 3,000 total visits a year, and if we weren’t here they would end up in the emergency room,” Larson, who has worked in an emergency department full-time for 30 years, said. “Most patients don’t require that level of service, and the clinic can help to save resources, time, energy and to make care more accessible.”

Larson chose to involve himself in this work at Puentes De Salud as it helped leverage his interests, work as an educator, travels abroad and experiences in global health. He noted that, although he began seeing immigrant patients clinically in the fall of 2006 in the old Saint Agnes Hospital, formerly at 1930 S. Broad St, through a partnership with the Archdiocese, he and his team had since been working to find new spaces to meet a growing demand.

When Saint Agnes closed 2.5 years later, as word of the clinic and his work spread via word-of-mouth among patients and potential patients, Larson was able to convinced a local clinic at the University of Pennsylvania to lend its facilities to Puentes two nights a week.

“We watched the number of patients grow from 5 to 10, from 10 to 100 and then from 100 to over 200,” Larson said. “The population kept growing exponentially in terms of the clinic, so we needed to expand the hours to meet the need. Holistically, we’ve grown about 15 to 20 percent per year.”

As a result, he and his team at the clinic have been working to continue to expand days of operation, and hope to someday obtain a larger, more accommodating facility. Although they are mostly forced to work nights at the clinic, because many of the volunteer base works during the day, it has since expanded hours to, by appointment and walk-in only, on Mondays from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. He added the goal is to be open five days a week, but that this will take time to achieve.

“Rather than wait for a diabetic to have a heart attack, or for things that require an increased amount of resources, we can do a heck of a lot of preventative care that’s in the public’s best interest,” Larson said. “We also want to further health-care education principally in children, because education is tied to socio-economics which is tied to health-care outcomes.”

Thus, when Pozdorovkin approached him about his interest in making a documentary, Larson thought that ideally his work could help patch a human face to the patients, hoping to change the perception of some that immigrants are associated with crime. Larson stressed that this is not the case, and that there’s a real other side to this story in terms of human rights.

Sharing their story through the lens of his camera, Pozdorovkin, an immigrant from Russia, said he learned of Puentes De Salud through a short article in The New York Times. Fascinated by the intersection of undocumented immigrants and health care and what it can explain about other issues and ethics doctors face, he saw this as an opportunity to portray that this population still remains an important part of the labor market.

“Their not having access to health care is expressive of the general political situation, and ways which the health-care system is failing itself,” Pozdorovkin said.

To demonstrate this notion, he referenced a scene from the documentary where a man visits the clinic because he is going blind from diabetes. A nurse asks him what he does for a living, to which he responds that he chops melons for Walmart.

“These people’s stories need to be told and they need to be represented, rather than forced to live in the shadows,” Pozdorovkin said. “There’s a lot of immigrant stories about how they came over the border, not their day-to-day reality isn’t presented enough, and people don’t realize the extent to the labor we benefit from them.”

For more information on Puentes De Salud, visit puentesdesalud.org. Additionally, to speak with someone at the clinic, email info@puentesdesalud.org or call 215–454–8000.