Health & Fitness

Merced groups seek health coverage for undocumented immigrants

About 250 people gather at Tenaya Middle School on Friday to discuss the plight of undocumented immigrants who are currently excluded from the Affordable Care Act.
About 250 people gather at Tenaya Middle School on Friday to discuss the plight of undocumented immigrants who are currently excluded from the Affordable Care Act. aibarra@mercedsunstar.com

More than 250 people gathered at Tenaya Middle School in south Merced on Friday to ask that health care be accessible to all, regardless of immigration status.

The event, led by community residents and local nonprofits, gave those who are unable to obtain health care coverage a forum in which to share how the lack affects their everyday lives.

Currently, undocumented immigrants are excluded from the benefits of the federal Affordable Care Act. It is estimated that Merced County has about 24,000 undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for coverage – approximately 10 percent of the county’s population.

According to organizers, the event was held in support of the statewide Health4All campaign, which aims to raise awareness about the fact that 1.4 million undocumented people in the state remain uninsured.

Families of Latino, Hmong and Portuguese ancestry told their stories in the auditorium on Friday. They addressed representatives from the offices of Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, and state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, in hopes that the first-person stories would help the elected officials understand Merced County’s need for health care expansion.

Two undocumented female farmworkers expressed their fear of becoming ill because of the expenses that come with it. Getting sick, they said, means having to pay full costs at a doctor’s office and missing a workday’s pay, which they can’t afford to do. The fear becomes even greater as they become older and body pains accumulate over the years, they said.

One concern, according to Lillian Sanchez, a community health educator with Mercy Medical Center in Merced, is that most who lack coverage will wait until their pains and illnesses become severe, and will end up in the hospital. A doctor’s visit for preventive care runs for about $145, Sanchez said. A hospital visit averages about $1,349.

Last year, the hospital recorded 66,000 visits to the emergency room, but about 60 percent of the visits could have been prevented, she said.

Ildefonso Nava, principal at Planada Elementary School, shared with attendees that a family’s lack of coverage can also affect a child’s academic success.

“There is a correlation between low grades and low attendance due to poor health,” Nava said. “Just like illnesses don’t have borders, neither should access to health care.”

Organizers said that it is important to share these stories with elected officials because they have the power to move forward legislation in support of coverage for undocumented immigrants.

Senate Bill 4, for example, which is waiting to be reviewed on the state Senate floor, would extend free or low-cost coverage to undocumented individuals. The bill would expand Medi-Cal and allow those who can afford to buy coverage from Covered California to do so.

Toward the end of the event, some residents expressed their disappointment with not being able to address Gray or Cannella in person. Both elected officials sent representatives on their behalf.

Organizers said they would work to arrange a meeting with both Gray and Cannella.

“(Friday’s event) showed us that there is a need for dialogue like this to take place in our community,” said Crissy Gallardo with the Merced Organizing Project. “I think at this point these people know that their stories matter and they are ready to be respected.”

The next event in support of Health4All will take place Monday.

A group of Merced residents will travel to Sacramento for an Immigrant Day at the Capitol event. A bus will leave from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Merced at 7:30 a.m. People interested in attending must register by Friday by emailing crissy@mopmerced.org.

Ana B. Ibarra: 209-385-2486, @ab_ibarra

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