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BUSINESSMAN KEEPS HISPANICS' HEALTH CLOSE TO HEART

Valencia Group aids with translation, med care consulting

VIVI ABRAMS News staff writer, The Birmingham News

11/02/2003

A gardener with a swollen thumb turned the wheel in Jose Antonio Valencia's head.

The man, a Spanish-speaking immigrant, was avoiding the doctor while his thumb got infected. Not because he couldn't pay, but because he lacked the English skills necessary to communicate his needs.

Valencia, a businessman from Bolivia who runs The Valencia Group, a health care consulting firm, took the man to his own doctor and got him the care he needed. The experience stayed with Valencia as he realized the growing need in the area for medical translators.

He started En Espanol, a nonprofit organization now in its second year. It has just received $850,000 in federal funding for the next two years to improve access to health care for native Spanish speakers - an estimated 30,000 in Jefferson County, according to En Espanol. The money rounds out a three-year, $1 million grant.

Valencia, 46, now takes a back seat in directing En Espanol while the staff, including a former missionary and a physician, direct the grant implementation and volunteer training pro grams. As chairman of the board of directors, Valencia networks for the group, acts as an adviser and houses the nonprofit at his office.

His friends say that his experience in health care and, more important, as a Latino professional in Alabama sets him in an optimal position to carry out his work. Hispanic Business Council president Reinaldo Ramos Jr. said Valencia is notably successful in a city that has less of a Hispanic establishment than some others. New Spanishspeaking immigrants here hail from more than a dozen Latin American countries.

"In other cities like Miami, Dallas, New York, LA, you have second-generation bilingual individuals, whereas Birmingham is really a neophyte community," he said. "Organizations like En Espanol are really seminal in being in a key place at the right time. Jose Antonio and all that he's doing, they're situated at the right time and the right place for his business and organization to be a success."

Valencia moved to Houston in his 20s after studying finance in college in Bolivia. He earned a B.S. in business services from the University of Houston in 1984 and a business degree from Samford University in 1990. He worked as a computer scientist for Health America before joining the administration of St. Vincent's Hospital.

He left St. Vincent's in 1998, taking several employees with him, to start The Valencia Group, which develops computer programs that control financial revenue cycles and admitting and registration for hospitals. Development of the group "was very exciting," said Debra Gorham, vice president for client operations. "It was a chance to kind of think outside the box . . . It was a chance to accomplish goals for hospitals using the processes we knew, but (with) a little more flexibility than in the internal hospital structures." Valencia said he saw an unmet need. Hospitals lacked efficient management software. "All of our (computer) programs are born out of need," he said. The company has grown to 48 employees and has 25 health care clients.

Likewise, En Espanol was a response to the need Valencia saw for health care access for Spanish speakers. "I know where the barriers were because I had seen them," he said. "I knew that the provider community was going to support me in that effort. And then we found excellent people. I just planted a seed, that's all I did."

He said the organization, which partners with other Hispanic advocate groups in the city, is not only trying to teach Spanish to the English population but is teaching the Spanish-speaking population English - to eventually meet in the middle.

Valencia is learning more about completing his mission in the context of the city. As a class member of Leadership Birmingham last year, he learned about Birmingham's history, including Alabama's part in the civil rights movement. "To me that was a great lesson," he said. "Then I understood the feelings of people much better. I became more aware of what we have and what we didn't have. We live in the past and we are afraid of moving to the future."

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