Migrant and seasonal farmworkers take advantage of Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers program

Daily Hampshire Gazette. August 20, 2014. Kathleen McKiernan.

Barrington Lewis has traveled from Jamaica to Deerfield for seven years to work and gather vegetables on Atlas Farm during harvest season.

During the few months he works on Gideon Porth’s organic farm, Lewis, 50, visits the doctor to get his blood pressure checked and the dentist to have his teeth cleaned as part of the Connecticut River Valley Farmworker Health Program.

“It’s real nice. When we really need it, they always provide health care,” he said.

Lewis is one of thousands of immigrants from Jamaica and Puerto Rico who travel to the Connecticut River Valley to work on fruit, vegetable and tobacco farms each harvest season. Throughout the growing season — roughly from April to October — the men and women, who must have work visas, toil on the farmland and in the orchards.

Yet, while they harvest, cultivate and prepare seasonal crops for market or storage, some could become exposed to pesticides and conditions that jeopardize their health.

According to the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, farmworkers can suffer from high rates of diabetes, chronic hypertension and dental disease. Occupational exposures to pesticides are a risk factor for many illnesses. Common conditions include musculoskeletal problems, dermatitis and rashes, headaches and eye problems.

Some 10 years ago, to help prevent workers from getting sick, the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers created the farmworker health program, which is designed to pay for some primary health care services to qualified seasonal farmworkers. The program is funded through a grant administered by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration and includes Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties in Massachusetts and Hartford, Middlesex and New Haven counties in Connecticut.

“This population would have no other care available to them,” said Cameron Carey, the program manager at the Community Health Center of Franklin County. “It fills in distinct gaps in what care might be available to them.”

Interviewed while eating his lunch, Lewis and his fellow farmworkers at Atlas Farm say the program helps them get access to a doctor in case they need one.

“I always get a checkup,” said Warren Simpson of Jamaica. “The doctors are nice and I like to bring them gifts like raspberries.”

The program is focused on preventive care. It covers care not paid for under MassHealth Limited or the Massachusetts Health Safety Net — two state-administered health plans for which farmworkers qualify.

Primary-care services include outpatient physician visits, diagnostic laboratory and X-ray services, screenings and immunizations, outpatient mental health and substance abuse services, vision care, dental care and pharmacy services.

Once the workers return to their home countries, they do not receive any benefits from the health program.

An estimated 21,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their dependents work and live in the Connecticut River Valley. Last year, 250 used the health program in Greenfield.

“It’s a population that is easily overlooked,” Carey said.

There are two types of farmworkers covered by the program. A migrant farmworker labors seasonally and moves to temporary housing to seek work. A seasonal farmworker is an individual whose employment is in agriculture on a seasonal basis (as opposed to year-round employment) and who does not establish a temporary home for the purposes of employment.

Each season, an outreach worker from the Greenfield-based health center visits local farms to inform workers of the program. Farms whose employees often participate include Atlas Farm in Deerfield and Enterprise Farm and Manheim Farm, both in Whately. The Community Health Center has a network of specialists who volunteer to work with the program. The health center also provides farmworkers transportation to appointments and specialists.