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How Collier’s Hispanic population experiences health care disparities

Healthcare Network provides affordable, accessible care to Collier County's large immigrant population. Still some Hispanic and Latino immigrants say their community is underserved in health care.
Kaitlyn Snook
Democracy Watch/WGCU
Healthcare Network provides affordable, accessible care to Collier County's large immigrant population. Still, some Hispanic and Latino immigrants say their community is underserved in health care.

In Collier, with a majority white, wealthy population, a stigma remains among many working-class Hispanic Americans regarding the health care system. Still, there are organizations available to help.

Hispanic and Latino immigrants make up one of Collier County’s largest yet most underrepresented communities. As of 2020, more than one-fourth of Collier’s population was born outside of the United States. Still, immigrants in the area face numerous socioeconomic challenges — including access to health care.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Hispanic people are more likely to be uninsured than any other racial or ethnic group. A study published in March by the Kaiser Family Foundation said that Hispanics in this country have higher death rates from diabetes than white people. That study used data from several federal agencies and found the age-adjusted rate of death from diabetes for every 100,000 Hispanics was 29; it was 22 for white Americans.

Naples resident Eli Ortez was born in Nicaragua and came to Southwest Florida with his family when he was 5 years old. He said while there are good health care resources for immigrants in the area, the biggest challenge is knowing where to find them.

“There’s no instruction manual on how to receive help,” Ortez said.

Living in an area with a majority white population and a high average income, Ortez said it can be hard for working-class Hispanic people to find providers who are sympathetic to their needs.

As of 2021, Collier County had a median household income of $75,540. A study by SmartAsset in 2022 ranked Collier as the second wealthiest county in the state. And while there is a large Hispanic and Latino population in Collier, nearly 90% of residents are white.

“When I had a white pediatrician, he would just ignore what I said,” Ortez said.

He recalls asking his pediatrician about symptoms and testing for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorer when he was in high school, and being given nothing but a questionnaire form.

“He didn’t tell me who to give it to or where to go. There was no follow-up,” Ortez said.

Pew Research found that 27% of Hispanic Americans believe hospitals and medical centers give them low priority. Thirty percent said they are less likely to receive the most advanced medical care available because of their race or ethnicity.

There can also be a stigma about health care in Hispanic communities. Ortez has experienced this within his own family. His stepfather, who was raised in Immokalee, never had yearly checkups while growing up and only went to a doctor to get vaccines that were mandatory for school, he said.

Mental health also can be a major issue. Data from the American Psychiatric Association show that in 2017, 27% of Hispanic Americans received some form of mental health treatment, compared with 46% of whites.

“There’s a lot of anxiety in Hispanic spaces about therapy,” Ortez said. “They think they don’t need to talk to a professional because they talk to friends and family.”

Other factors that can discourage Hispanic and Latino immigrants from getting medical care include language barriers, scheduling issues, no access to transportation and a lack of education.

But there are options for those struggling in Collier County. Organizations such as Healthcare Network have programs aimed at providing more accessible and affordable health care to marginalized communities.

Healthcare Network’s first location was established in Immokalee in 1977 with the goal of addressing rural and minority health. The organization has expanded to serve all of Collier County as the community’s needs have grown.

“Our mission is to reach our most underserved populations throughout the community,” said Gabrielle O’Boyle, marketing director.

It does so through a variety of programs. Healthcare Network offers discounts to customers through a “sliding fee scale,” meaning they are charged based on their ability to pay. Many of its locations also offer pediatric and family care, dental care, and lab and X-ray services.

One of its most valuable features, O’Boyle said, are its Community Outreach Teams.

Established in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these teams go door-to-door in underserved communities, from Golden Gate to Everglades City, to spread information and provide residents with the tools they need to receive proper care.

The teams provide assistance through many different methods, including pop-up clinics and pharmacies in areas that otherwise have none, handing out educational pamphlets and asking residents about their medical situations.

“It really takes a village to provide care and identify the people most in need,” said O’Boyle.

Facilities like Healthcare Network can’t operate alone, she said. It works with a variety of other organizations in Collier County, including Grace Place for Children and Families in Naples.

Grace Place helps Hispanic and Latino families find education, housing, employment and health care near them. When people come to Grace Place in need of health care, the agency is able to connect them with providers such as Healthcare Network.

Marianella Valdettaro is the assistant manager of Grace Place’s Bright Beginnings program. She said what makes Grace Place unique is its focus on children and parents.

“We refer people when they need assistance,” Valdettaro said. “But this organization is really for families.”

Bright Beginnings is a family literacy program that provides parenting assistance and education for children and adults. The goal, Valdettaro said, is to give families knowledge they can take home with them and use in the future.

It’s programs like this that Valdettaro said not only address immediate needs in the community, but also create an environment in the future where those needs are already met, and where families know how to provide for themselves.

“Kids are learning English, they’re learning about the community,” Valdettaro said. “And when they go home, they’re teaching their families, too.”

For the children of Hispanic and Latino immigrant families, resources like Healthcare Network and Grace Place can help them navigate the community with more ease than their parents might have had.

Ortez recognizes that he’s faced fewer challenges than his parents and older family members did; for example, gaining citizenship through naturalization and speaking English fluently without an accent. Still, he describes his experience as an immigrant in Collier County as “frustrating.”

He said there is a constant pressure from society to look, dress and act a certain way — to look “more white” — so that he receives the same opportunities and resources, including health care, as everyone else.

“I shouldn’t have to look a certain way to be respected as a person,” he said.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at

Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Kaitlyn Snook/Democracy Watch