Immigrant families allege discriminatory treatment at East Boston health clinic

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Immigrant families allege discriminatory treatment at East Boston health clinic
The East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe, File

BOSTON (AP) — Immigrant women and families are calling on Massachusetts officials to investigate complaints of discriminatory and substandard care at a major Boston health clinic.

Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based legal advocacy group, on Tuesday filed a formal request for state Attorney General Maura Healey’s office and the state Department of Public Health to jointly open a review into the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center’s compliance with civil rights and public health laws.

Patricia Montes, head of Centro Presente, a Boston-based Latino organization, says the poor medical treatment has resulted in “misdiagnosis, worsened health conditions, even death” among immigrant families. Advocates say they’ve identified at least ten impacted families and individuals and are in the process of interviewing others.

In one case cited in the request, a Honduran woman identified only as Maria A. said she brought her months old infant to the clinic after he’d been crying and showing other signs of illness in July 2020.

The family was sent home after clinic staff concluded there were no medical concerns, but the following day, the mother brought the baby back after his condition worsened, according to the investigation request.

Staff ultimately called an ambulance to rush the baby to another hospital emergency room, but he died en route with what clinic staff told the family was “sudden infant death syndrome,” the request states.

In another instance, a woman of Salvadoran descent identified only as Chloe F. went to the clinic complaining of chest pain, fatigue, and heart palpitations last November. Medical staff ran an electrocardiogram, determined the woman had an irritation in her lungs and prescribed her ibuprofen.

But when her conditions worsened, the woman said she sought treatment at another hospital and was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer, according to the investigation request.

East Boston Neighborhood Health Center declined to comment on those and other examples cited by the advocates. The clinic said it sought a meeting with Centro Presente and the families it represents when they first raised the complaints last month, but none agreed to meet.

It also said it’s launching a patient advocate office as part of a broader effort to “listen to our patient voices” that also includes cultural awareness and diversity trainings for medical staff.

“We welcome dialogue with any of our patients regarding their experiences with our organization,” the clinic said in a written statement. “We have also proactively reached out to the attorney general’s office to invite a review of any allegation.”

Healey’s office said it plans to meet with the families to hear their concerns; spokespersons for the public health department didn’t comment.

Speaking at a news conference in front of the health clinic Tuesday, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said his organization plans to meet with the clinic and is “delighted” the center is interested in finding solutions to the concerns.

But he argued that the state should still conduct a civil rights inquiry because their evidence shows that “substandard care falls particularly harshly” on immigrants, women and those on public health benefits.

“Supervision and enforcement activity from state officials is critical for accountability,” said Espinoza-Madrigal, as patients held signs saying “Immigrants Deserve Quality Healthcare’ and other slogans. “We cannot simply trust the institution to police itself.”