04/05/2013 11:21 am ET

The Affordable Care Act and Immigrants: Why Access Isn't Enough

Dizziness and the stench of antiseptic overwhelmed me in the delivery room, where nurses darted in every direction to grab gloves and gowns and put out warming blankets. "Breathe," a doctor commanded in broken Spanish. A scream rang out -- followed by a baby's dramatic push into the world. It was Take Your Daughter to Work Day and an eye-opening experience for nine-year-old me.

I've never forgotten the scene of that distressed Hispanic immigrant giving birth -- not because I'm queasy, but because I'm concerned. Between 800 and 1,500 hundred women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every day. Still more women die when they don't get preventative screenings or adequate medical care. Such gender-based health care disparities are not limited to the developing world: Female immigrants often experience some of the most abysmal health outcomes right here in the United States.

Assimilating to a new culture and language is not easy, especially when trauma or violence precedes immigration. Accessing care in an unfamiliar, confusing and often culturally insensitive system becomes a massive hurdle that many immigrants cannot overcome. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), to be implemented next year, is a step in the right direction. Its three goals are to reduce health care costs, give more people access to care, and make that care the best it can possibly be. But the ACA is not a magic wand: simply saying that people now have access to care does not mean that they will know how to access it through such a complex system.

That is why my fellow Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) team members and I are taking action by helping female immigrants understand and access the care available to them in St. Louis under the new provisions in the ACA. By involving immigrant community members and forming partnerships with key local agencies, our team of first-year graduate students at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis hopes to bridge the gap between merely having access to care and actually using it. Our CGI U commitment will help immigrants navigate new insurance exchanges, connect them with care facilities, and most importantly, empower them to make their voices heard in their own health care decisions.

I am dedicated to this endeavor, simply because, many years after that day in the delivery room, the smell of the astringent still stings, the distress of the immigrant remains vivid, and the health care disparities are still all too real. The ACA offers a path to hope. But hope is no substitute for what immigrants and others actually need as health care reform inches towards reality: tangible help with navigation.

As we stand on the eve of the ACA's implementation in 2014, we must keep our society's most vulnerable populations top of mind. Let's ensure that the ACA offers not just access, but quality health care that is equal for all - and truly understood by everyone.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in recognition of the latter's CGI University meeting (April 5-7 at Washington University in St. Louis). CGI University gathers top students and youth organizations to create innovative solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges. For more information, click here.