First Latina Health Commissioner is Only Getting Started

Dr. Oxiris Barbot in her Long Island City office. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

[Below are excerpts from Pedro F. Frisneda article.]

Only two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio named Dr. Oxiris Barbot as commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), from which she will have the responsibility of overseeing the health of more than 8.5 million New Yorkers. She is the first Latina in this position. (…)

Barbot was born in the Bronx, where her parents migrated to from Puerto Rico. She had a humble and a bit of a tragic childhood growing up in NYCHA’s Patterson Houses, being raised by her young mother as her dad died when she was 9. (…)

In 2003 she was named medical director of the Office of School Health at the DOHMH and the city’s Department of Education. After moving to Baltimore between 2010 and 2014 to serve as health commissioner of the city, she returned to New York as first deputy commissioner of the DOHMH. In August 2018 the mayor named her acting commissioner after Dr. Mary Bassett’s resignation. (…)

On her agenda for the Latino community

Every year we survey thousands of New Yorkers and I want to review this data and see how it is affecting Latinos specifically… The reality is that Latinos are being affected by the same causes of death as other New Yorkers, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and opioids, but for each of those causes we will have a different approach.

On the mayor’s NYC Care initiative

Health is a human right and it is inexcusable that we live in a country where you can get health care assistance only if you have insurance. I’m really excited because with NYC Care we will serve every New Yorker regardless of their immigration status and ability to pay.

(…) When I had my medical practice, my patients were immigrants, mostly from El Salvador and Central America, and most had no medical insurance and didn’t qualify for Medicaid. As a pediatrician, I know the people’s frustration in trying to access health services, specifically for specialized care. That’s why the NYC Care program is hugely significant because people can access primary doctors but also specialists and mental health services.

On overlooked health problems for Latinos

I’m really worried about mental health issues, and also substance abuse. The city is currently in the midst of an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, and while the number of casualties remains really high we’ve seen a small decline, but the worry is that the numbers for Blacks and Latinos remain really high, specifically in the South Bronx.

If the South Bronx was a state, it would have the highest overdose rate only behind West Virginia, and this is a crisis that worries me. What we want is to reduce those numbers in all communities, not only for people who have the means.

On the ‘Latinx Thrive’ program

One of my main priorities as health commissioner is to elevate the importance of mental health to the same level of physical health. This is one of those areas in which the Latino community must know about existing resources, but what’s more important is that they use those resources.

For example, the training program to learn about mental health first aid has classes in Spanish. You can call 311 to learn when is there going to be a Spanish-language class in your community… We also have the free aid hotline NYC Well, in which they don’t ask your name or immigration status, and in which people can obtain information in Spanish for them or their families, ranging from dealing with stress to mental illness.

On the controversy on lead levels in children who live in NYCHA housing.

Since 2005, when Local Law 1 was launched, the percentage of kids with high lead levels has decreased 90 percent. We are closely working with HPD (Housing Preservation and Development) and NYCHA and the communities to ensure that the number of exposed kids keeps decreasing (…) We also have campaigns targeting the Latino community that travels to Central America or Mexico, where they have ceramics with lead paint and that puts them at risk because they use them to eat when they’re supposed to be only for decoration. (…)

On suicide rates among young Latinas

The last time we reviewed the statistics, reports of people having considered or attempted suicide remain high in school-aged adolescents, and that’s why it’s really important for me, personally and professionally, to make clear that when we talk about mental health and ThriveNYC services, they are available not only for adults but also for Latino youths, regardless of whether they speak English or Spanish.

On the ‘Ending the Epidemic’ program goal of ending the HIV epidemic by 2020

Absolutely, I am really excited about it. We are well on our way to reaching the goals we set for ourselves by 2020 (…) However, we found that among the risk groups, Latino MSM (men having sex with other men), the numbers are not decreasing as fast as among other groups, and that’s why we had a rapid response and created the prevention campaign “Listos,” which was developed in Spanish.

We want to use the “Listos” examples for other conditions such as diabetes, and develop campaigns specifically in Spanish because if you develop them in English and then translate them, you lose that cultural connection. (…)

On her being a famously expert domino player

It’s definitely true (laughs). Like in many Latino families, I learned from my grandfather, and it’s one of my favorite things to do. I play dominos with my mom, and I even taught my gringo friends how to play and they love it. In fact, I have a group of really close friends with whom I play dominos from time to time.

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