Public health expert and advocate Lilia Cervantes, MD, will deliver the Christopher R. Blagg, MD, Endowed Lectureship in Kidney Disease and Public Policy on Sunday, November 6. The topic will be “Dialysis for Patients in the Undocumented Immigrant Community in the United States.”
Dr. Cervantes is the director of immigrant health and associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver.
She spearheaded an innovative change to a Medicaid payment rule in Colorado to give undocumented patients with kidney failure access to life-saving maintenance dialysis. One event that crystallized the need for this change was the death of a patient who was ineligible for Medicaid because of her undocumented status and therefore unable to receive regular dialysis treatments. Such patients could receive dialysis only in the emergency room when their health was in critical condition. This policy led Dr. Cervantes to pivot her career from clinical work to research and advocacy for the expansion of access to standard dialysis for undocumented and uninsured immigrants.
Dr. Cervantes conducted research to document the enormous human and economic costs of the exclusionary policy, developed a coalition of allies, and proposed a policy remedy. Thanks to the work of Dr. Cervantes and her team, the state of Colorado in February 2019 announced a policy change that expanded access to standard three-times-per-week dialysis care for patients with kidney failure who previously had to rely on emergency-only treatment.
Her background as a first-generation Latina shaped her commitment to becoming a physician as well as her focus on community service, health policy activism, and health equity research.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that is very poor, where the life expectancy is about 12 years shorter [than it is in] a neighborhood that's just five miles away,” Dr. Cervantes said. “From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to be a physician. I wanted to improve the well-being of my community.”
Her efforts have garnered national attention and partnerships, leading to efforts to enable routine dialysis for underserved patients in several other states. Following this defining experience, Dr. Cervantes’ research and advocacy have focused on eliminating structural racism to reduce kidney health disparities.
She has received more than 15 awards for her service to her community and is a member of nine civic and community activity boards.
Dr. Cervantes completed her medical degree and internal medicine residency at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She has worked as a hospitalist at Denver Health, the safety-net hospital for the city of Denver, for more than 12 years.