Above: Tonya Mendoza shares her story of struggling to pay for medical care without insurance; at times she had to decide between paying her utility bills and rent or buying medicine. (Photo by Hannah Esqueda)
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — As the federal debate over the fate of the Affordable Care Act continues, Merced County health proponents are calling on local officials to make universal healthcare a reality for all residents, regardless of age or immigration status.
“When you’re sick, you’re sick. It doesn’t matter who you are, you are going to need care,” said Pastor Phil Jenkins, leader at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Atwater. “Those who are in power and can do something should remember to look at these [undocumented] people as people first.”
Jenkins was among half a dozen community leaders and residents speaking out on the issue during a press conference earlier this week. The event was organized by Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Merced’s Prevention Action Team (PAT) as a way of building support for a Merced County Board of Supervisors study session which will investigate ways the county can expand healthcare to all residents.
Advocates say such testimony will be a powerful tool, as it puts a human face to the issue and highlights the deep disparity within the county.
“I had to choose between paying my rent and other bills, or paying for medicine I really needed,” said Tonya Mendoza, an undocumented Merced County resident who spoke at the event.
Like many of the county’s undocumented population, Mendoza said she has worked in the Valley’s agricultural fields for years, frequently working seven days a week to earn more for her family.
Recently, she came down with a severe stomach condition that threatened her ability to work. The community clinic she visited allowed her to pay on a sliding fee discount model–making her visit more affordable–but she still faced a $300 bill for her medicine.
“I chose to pay it because I needed it, but I couldn’t afford any follow-up care after that,” Mendoza said.
Those are the kinds of tough choices which have become all too common for uninsured Merced residents, PAT members say. The ACA went a long way in expanding Medi-Cal to much of the county’s population, 51 percent of whom now depend on the state-sponsored health plan, but undocumented adults and several other populations continue to slip through the cracks.
More than 9,000 Merced County residents remain without healthcare options, said Lupe Delgado, healthcare outreach worker with the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE). While advocates like herself were initially hopeful that national and statewide efforts would address the issue earlier this year, she said it’s now clear that work needs to focus on the county-level.
“Merced County is one of several counties in the state who don’t provide medical services to this population,” she said. “But these people pay taxes, they contribute to those services and yet they don’t qualify for them.”
Delgado’s organization and the PAT team are now hopeful that Merced County officials will take the issue head-on and expand healthcare for those vulnerable populations.
So far this request has been met with some positive results. This spring, the five-member Merced County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously for a study session to hear directly from the community and key stakeholders on the “health-for-all” issue. The vote was anonymous but members Lee Lor and Rodrigo Espinoza have been vocal in their support of expanded health coverage.
The two supervisors are the newest to take seats on the board and were largely supported by minority Latino and Hmong voters in rural and low-income communities.
While the county study session primarily aims to address problems faced by the county’s uninsured, Delgado and others say any plan will eventually impact all of Merced County.
“If people don’t have a chance to receive services, they will decline in health, leading to more costly treatment down the road,” she said. “That cost will likely pass from the uninsured to our insured population.”
“This is truly a community issue and affects all of us,” she continued.
As such, PAT announced they are asking the county to formally develop a program to give services to undocumented. The program would require funding from a new source specifically created by officials to be used for medical reimbursements at Medi-Cal rates. The proposed program would continue until such funds have been exhausted.
The study session to explore such options is scheduled for Aug. 15 and will offer community members a chance to share their concerns directly with county officials.