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How a doctor breaks norms to treat refugees and recent immigrants

Markian Hawryluk, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

AURORA, Colo. — Fatumo Osman, a 65-year-old Somali refugee who speaks limited English, was in a bind. She made too much money at a meal prep service job so she no longer qualified for Medicaid. But knee pain kept her from working, so her income had dropped. She could reapply for Medicaid, get her knee fixed and return to work, at which point she’d lose that safety-net health coverage. Her first step was getting a note from a doctor so she wouldn’t lose her job.

So, Osman came to Mango House, a clinic in this eastern suburb of Denver that caters primarily to refugees and turns no one away, regardless of their ability to pay. Dr. P.J. Parmar designed the clinic to survive on the Medicaid payments that many doctors across the U.S. reject as too low.

The clinic is just one part of a broader refugee ecosystem that Parmar has built. Mango House provides food and clothing assistance, after-school programs, English classes, legal help — and Parmar even leads a Boy Scout troop there. He leases space to nine stores and six restaurants, all owned and run by refugees. Mango House hosts a dozen religious groups, plus community meetings, weddings and other celebrations. When Parmar needs an interpreter for a patient from any of a dozen languages spoken in the building, he can easily grab one of his tenants.

“This is what I call a medical home,” Parmar said.

Although it’s not part of the formal U.S. refugee resettlement program, Mango House is in many ways emblematic of refugee health care in the U.S. It’s a less-than-lucrative field of medicine that often relies on individual physicians willing to eke out a living caring for an underserved and under-resourced population.

Parmar finds creative ways, often flouting norms or skirting rules, to fit his patients’ needs. As a result, Mango House looks nothing like the rest of the U.S. health care system and, at times, draws the ire of the medical establishment.

 

“How do you deliver the quality of care necessary, and that they deserve, while still keeping the lights on? It’s a struggle for sure,” said Jim Sutton, executive director of the Society of Refugee Healthcare Providers. “It’s these heroes, these champions out there, these cowboys that are taking this on.”

Osman brought her son, Jabarti Yussef, 33, to interpret for her. They have been coming to Mango House for 10 years and said that Parmar opens doors for them when they have trouble accessing care.

“If we ask for an appointment to get Medicaid, P.J. makes the call,” Yussef said. “If we call, we’re on hold for an hour, and then it hangs up. If we go to the ER, it’s a three-hour wait. Here, the majority of people walk in and sit for 30 minutes. It’s good for the community.”

As for Osman’s knee pain, Yussef asked Parmar, could they pay cash to get an MRI at the hospital?

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