by Miguel Garcia
Photo by Merced Organizing Project
Ed Note: The Affordable Care Act has extended health care coverage to millions of Americans but has left an estimated one million undocumented California residents without coverage. Locally, health care reform advocates have estimated that nearly 25,000 residents of Merced County do not have access to regular care.
On February 25th, County Supervisor John Pedrozo held his annual town hall meeting in South Merced at Tenaya Middle School in South Merced. He began holding these community meetings a few years ago as a way to hear directly from his constituents. Pedrozo oversees District 1, which covers South Merced as well as more rural areas like El Nido, Le Grand and Planada.
The meeting was dominated by comments from community members regarding the lack of health coverage for undocumented residents. Supervisor Pedrozo was joined by representatives from the offices of Assembly member Adam Gray, Congressman Jim Costa, and Senator Anthony Canella, who did not offer much of a response to the discussion that followed.
Once the public had a chance to speak, Merced residents repeatedly brought up access to health care for all.
The first resident to speak was Adriana Flores, an undocumented woman who has been a resident of Merced for 23 years. Flores spoke about her inability to apply for Obamacare regardless of the fact that she pays taxes. Because of her inability to see a doctor, Flores has never been able to know why she can no longer have children.
Following Flores, other speakers shared similar stories about the struggles of undocumented workers who battle health issues with limited options for care. Chakirina Gama, a field worker, shared her family’s struggle of relying solely on over-the-counter medicine instead of receiving proper medical advice from a doctor.
Resident and registered voter Cecilia Mendoza, who has lived in South Merced for over forty years, also mentioned that when people are unable to receive regular medical attention, it hurts everyone in the long run. She said that undocumented peoples seeking urgent medical attention have no choice but to go to the emergency room, which results in a higher expense for taxpayers.
The last speaker was Jacqueline Hernandez, the daughter of an undocumented parent, who asked for a safety net by reasoning that the life of an undocumented person is of equal worth as the life of a citizen.
Following the public outcry, Supervisor Pedrozo offered little response. He passed the microphone to Michael Johnson, Assistant Director of the Public Health Department, who restated what most people in the room already knew: Undocumented families, unfortunately, do not qualify for the recent Medicaid expansion. Johnson admitted that the options available were relatively limited and suggested that emergency services and free clinic programs may be the most realistic options for undocumented people in Merced County.
Once Johnson finished speaking, the conversation quickly turned to the gang violence plaguing South Merced. This topic shift seemed to leave some of the Merced in attendance unsatisfied with the response.
Jacqueline Hernandez brought the discussion back to the topic of health care by going deeper into her personal frustrations regarding her father, an undocumented farm worker, who cannot receive Medical help due to the cost of out-of-pocket expenses.
After this comment Pedrozo gave a direct response, saying he “will look into the matter.” He said he has “no idea where Merced would be without the Mexican field workers,” which was received with applause from the crowd. Pedrozo ended by saying that he’d get more information and “work it out” though it remained unclear how.