08/06/2012 10:00 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2012

Full Adoption of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion a Must for Latina Health

Last week, as Latinas around the country celebrated the start of access to contraception without co-pays, I thought back to three years ago when my staff and I organized and rallied for affordable birth control as part of our first national Latina Week of Action for Reproductive Justice. To many of us, it felt almost like a dream to think that there would be a day when being a Latina would not be considered a pre-existing condition. Yet here we are: millions of women will have access to birth control to plan and space their families, and the benefits don't stop there. Latinas also have expanded access to life-saving preventive care, like HIV and HPV screenings and domestic violence counseling and screening. It supports mothers with breastfeeding supplies and comprehensive support and counseling by trained providers.

But even as we celebrate these gains, we can't afford to be complacent.

Millions of Latinas remain without access to life-saving care and contraception: undocumented immigrants are barred from benefits under the ACA. A recent New York Times article noted that this leaves a full 11 million immigrants, many of them Latinas, without care and at risk, and places an incredible burden on our nation's hospitals.

Latinas in states who are refusing to implement the Medicaid expansion are also at risk.

The Associated Press recently reported the heartbreaking story of Andrea Gallegos, a Latina in Texas whose husband died from cancer because a lack of insurance prevented him from accessing treatment. He was forced to rely on cheaper, substandard care and sometimes had to choose between doctors' appointments to save money. Andrea now wonders if her husband's choosing a cardiologist visit over a follow-up MRI was a fatal mistake.

Two years after her husband's death, Andrea has her own battles. She's fighting cancer with the help of Planned Parenthood's breast and cervical cancer program, but she worries about her sisters. Both have cancer. Neither has had any follow-up appointments since their initial treatment.

At the same time as Andrea Gallegos and her sisters struggle to access potentially life-saving care, the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, which will provide care for vulnerable Latinas like Andrea and her sisters, is under attack. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has loudly refused to accept federal money to expand care, and other states with many Latinas, like Florida, are following suit. Planned Parenthood, a leading health care provider for Latinos, has faced multiple attempts to defund it, including in Texas, where Gov. Perry risks shutting down the entire Medicaid Women's Health Program by trying to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.

As the leader of one of the foremost Latina health organizations in the country, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, I urge governors and legislators across the country to fully implement the Medicaid expansion for Latina health. This week, NLIRH, Latinas and advocates across the country are coming together to demand access to quality, affordable health care during the third annual Week of Action for Reproductive Justice. Latinos, activists and their supporters are already standing up for Latinas by contributing to NLIRH's ¡Soy Poderosa! movement for Latina health.

The Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion are important steps forward for Latinas, who are disproportionately likely to face structural barriers that prevent them from accessing care. Health care reform legislation promises to start knocking down these obstacles to care, which have led to health disparities like higher rates of cervical cancer and HIV/AIDS. Already the ACA has taken important steps to expanding Latina access to care, allowing 736,000 young Latinos to retain coverage and eliminating discrimination by health insurers against children with pre-existing conditions.

Yet we can't forget about Andrea and her sisters. Our fight has not ended. Too many Latinas are still without access, and opponents are doing their best to roll back these recent gains and leave Latinas like Andrea without care. We are our own best advocates, and it's the time for us to stand up for our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our communities and ourselves.

Join us by calling or writing to your governor and local representatives to urge them to fully implement the Medicaid expansion and by adding your own photo to our ¡Soy Poderosa! photo campaign. Together we can ensure that no more Latinas have to face the hardships of Andrea Gallegos and her sisters because they can't afford quality care.