photo courtesy of BHC Merced
by Claudia Gonzalez
MERCED, Calif.– Residents from across Merced and Stanislaus counties gathered at Tenaya Middle School in South Merced last week for a community dialogue addressing Health For All, the campaign to expand health coverage to all Californians including undocumented immigrants.
Over 270 people packed into the May 8 event, representing a diverse array of ethnic communities in the area. Many offered personal testimony about how they had been affected by the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Merced resident Pa Ya is from the city’s sizable Hmong community. She spoke of her “back-breaking” job as a field worker and her inability to see a doctor despite the constant pain she suffers.
“Many field workers like myself get very sick and sometimes die because they are undocumented and do not have insurance,” said Ya as she described what is like working without medical coverage.
Of the 24,000 estimated undocumented residents in Merced county, approximately seven percent are Asian. A majority work in agriculture and have a median annual income of $18,000, according to a USC and San Diego State University report titled “Unauthorized and Uninsured.”
Health For All, or SB 4, was introduced earlier this year by Senator Ricardo Lara (D – Bell Gardens). If passed, the bill would give undocumented immigrants the option of buying insurance through Covered California, the marketplace exchange set up under the ACA. Under current law undocumented immigrants are prohibited from doing so.
Lara spoke earlier in the week on a tele-briefing for ethnic media about the importance of SB 4 as a template for the rest of the country. Executive Director of Health Access California Anthony Wright joined Lara on the call and stressed that advocacy and organizing are the only way that Health For All will garner more support in the Central Valley.
Monica Adrian is a #Health4all advocate from the Merced County Office of Education. She attended the town hall where she shared her own family’s struggle with accessing health care. “I believe all people in this country deserve health care and medical service,” she said.
Jennifer Mockus of the Central California Health Alliance, described the barriers undocumented families face and reiterated that healthy residents make healthier communities.
“Accidents don’t stop whether you are undocumented or not,” she said.
Many in the crowd were disappointed to learn that Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) and Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) would not be in attendance, despite earlier promises to attend. Both sent spokespersons instead.
“It’s a shame our representatives are not here,” shouted Stanislaus County resident Miguel Donozo in Spanish. Others in attendance murmured their agreement.
Jose Flores, who spoke at the event, described responses from their representatives as “political as always.”
The night ended with requests for more chances to discuss ways to push for passage of Health For All and a celebratory cheer. Still, many attendees also openly expressed disappointment with their elected officials.
“I feel like nothing was accomplished,” said Natalie Pereira, 21. “They give the same answers all the time and they do not want to cooperate with the community.”
Jennifer Bounheuang, 26, echoed that frustration.
“The representatives acted like we should be grateful they blessed us with their presence,” said Bounheuang. “We are never going to get health for all if our elected officials refuse to attend in-district meetings.”
She added, “They forget we elected them.”
The May 8th community dialogue, organized by nonprofit organizations, community residents, advocates, and local agencies assembled as the Building Healthy Communities Prevention Action Team, will be followed with an action on Monday, May 18th. Residents of Merced County will be travelling up to Sacramento for the annual Immigrant Day advocacy rally.