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Casa De Salud President Jorge Riopedre Reflects On A Decade Of Treating St. Louis Immigrants

Jorge Riopedre, the outgoing CEO and president of Casa de Salud, poses for a portrait in his office on Oct. 23, 2019.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Jorge Riopedre, the outgoing CEO and president of Casa de Salud, poses for a portrait in his office last week.

After nine years as president of the Casa de Salud health clinic in St. Louis, Jorge Riopedre has announced he’s leaving the health center on Nov. 1.

During his tenure, the clinic opened a mental health office and debuted a program to help patients, most of whom are immigrants, find low-cost care at hospitals. It also more than doubled its staff.

Casa de Salud’s board of directors is searching for a new director, and Riopedre has said he doesn’t know what he will do next.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Fentem asked Riopedre about what has changed for his patients in the past decade and what the future has in store for the St. Louis clinic.

Sarah Fentem: When you started almost a decade ago at Casa, what were the biggest problems that you saw patients coming in, health wise and socially? Have those problems stayed the same?

Jorge Riopedre: Some of the most baseline things, unfortunately, have stayed the same. When I arrived, we saw a lot of people either at risk or with diabetes. Today, we are seeing a lot of people at risk or with diabetes. That represents, in my opinion, a systemic failure of the health care system of those who are involved with social determinants of health that lead to these kinds of situations.  

I also think that as time went on, we saw less fear in our patients being able to come here. Like, we were only going to ask questions about health care [and not immigration status]. I think in more recent years, unfortunately, that level of fear has gone up.

SF: Immigration, especially with Spanish-speaking populations, is something that's on the political radar in a way that I think maybe hasn't been before. Can you talk a little bit more about how that's affecting the people that you see at Casa de Salud?

JR: What has changed has been the proactive way that Government, written with a capital G, has literally tried to strike fear in the hearts of immigrants. And I'm not simply talking about [unauthorized] immigrants. I'm talking about immigrants. And that, I think, is what has changed in the political spectrum.

I think clearly, anecdotally and empirically, we would have to say that there is a much greater degree of fear. Even people who are in the United States 100% legally, but they are brown or they are some other color on the spectrum, and they wonder, “Will I be affected by this just because of the way I look, regardless of what my legal status is here?” I think you'd have to be blind not to see that that has changed.

SF: Can you talk a little bit about what's coming next for Casa as you're leaving?

JR: Well, I mean, ongoing, the process that I and my board of directors and my staff started a year and a half ago, funded by the Missouri Foundation for Health … has been this very intentional rebranding of the organization.

So that we weren't just saying that we wanted to reach out to all immigrants, not just Latinos, but that we were providing more interpreters, that we were translating all our collateral materials, that we were culturally competent. All the things that go well beyond just saying, “Oh, yeah, hey, come on. You're not Latino. Come on. It's cool.” But you know, trying to actually do something about it.

So I think we've been working very intentionally in that direction. I think that again, looking at the mental health collaborative, where all of our signs are in Spanish, English and Arabic, Arabic being the third most spoken language of our patients.

Structurally, I hope that by next year, we will be providing dental services. The mental health collaborative, mitigated — certainly not solved, mitigated — probably the largest issue, which is access to mental health services. [Access to] dental health services is probably the next most difficult situation.

SF: You know, a lot of times, people don't just leave their jobs. They leave for something else. And it seems like you're sort of just jumping without really knowing where you're going to land.

JR: That’s true.

I really wanted to take two months off, which I've never in my adult professional career done — almost like a mini sabbatical. Take those two months off, recharge, reconstitute myself and then really start looking to see what my next step is. People don't seem to believe me, but I really don't know what it is at this point.

Nov. 1 is my last day of Casa de Salud. It's a Friday. I thought the best thing for me to do is simply stay focused on working right to the last second.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.