Above: Merced County residents and health advocates testify about the lack of health care access for undocumented residents during study session at the Merced County Boards of Supervisors meeting Aug. 15. (Photo by Faith In Merced)
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — Local health advocates moved a small step closer to making “Health for All” a reality in Merced County last week when the Board of Supervisors ordered an examination of a health program option designed to expand services to the undocumented.
County staff were ordered to begin looking into ways the county can fund ancillary and diagnosis services for the 9,000-13,000 residents estimated to lack proper access to health care coverage. The proposed plan is based off a recommendation and study commissioned by Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Merced and its Prevention Action Team (PAT).
“Our recommendation is from community leaders talking to community members and undocumented residents over the last few months,” said LaVerne Davis, cultural specialist with Healthy House Merced and member of PAT.
Supervisors Rodrigo Espinoza and Lee Lor pushed for further examination of the plan after several hours of testimony from residents and local health agency officials, however several other board members appeared disinclined to pursue the option.
“Where’s the money going to come from? Where are we going to get the money to provide healthcare for all,” said Jerry O’Banion, District 5 Supervisor. “I haven’t heard anything about that today so far.”
Advocates like Davis responded saying it’s up to county officials, as elected representatives for the community, to take the lead from here.
“It is your duty as representatives to represent the community,” she said. “If [undocumented residents] are paying taxes, they’re productive citizens and they’re in your fields working and providing food on your table, then we as a community should be able to provide them a service that they need.”
The suggested ancillary and diagnosis plan is also the least expensive of the seven proposals PAT had originally provided Merced County Supervisors. The option would cost an estimated $200,000 in its first year, or $50 per enrollee.
“The community likes this option best because it fills the gap [between services],” Davis said.
Uninsured residents currently navigate a patchwork of health care services offered by various clinics, health agencies and local providers. However, this web of support is not built on a preventative care model and many residents say they have to cover services for chronic disease and expensive operations out of pocket.
“When you’re working in the fields, you’re getting $400 a week, $600 maybe at the most,” said Tania Mendoza, undocumented resident and field worker. “That money doesn’t go far and there is no room left to go to clinics. I don’t have the luxury of being sick.”
Mendoza was one of nearly a dozen residents to come forward at the study session and share her experience with the current healthcare system. Through tears several residents spoke of how they couldn’t afford recommended lab tests and surgery, dental work, or even updated prescription lenses and are therefore struggle to take care of their family and work obligations.
“We work hard for our community, we pay our taxes. Nothing is given to us for free,” Mendoza said.
“When I go to the store, I pay the price of products plus taxes. They don’t set me aside because I’m undocumented. They treat us the same and we pay the same,” she continued.
Advocates pointed out Merced County’s undocumented population is estimated to pay nearly $9 million in local taxes this year alone. Additionally, the community plays a major role in the local economy as the undocumented labor force supports much of Merced’s agricultural industry–valued at $3.5 billion in 2015.
Working in the fields is tough enough on the body, but when someone gets sick, injured or an accident happens, the work is nearly impossible, said Blanca Lozano, a county resident.
“The law passed and now the [undocumented] children have coverage,” she said. “But we need to also consider the undocumented parents and their needs.”
“We need to grow positively and know that a life without health isn’t worth living,” Lozano continued. “In Merced County, the undocumented people that work out in the heat, in the cold so everyone at home can enjoy their meal, should be healthy and happy.”
Approving a county-sponsored health program for the uninsured would therefore go a long way in demonstrating the support of local officials for the undocumented population, said Sol Rivas, hub manager at BHC Merced.
“We stand by the voices of our residents and they’re asking for this because it’s something they need,” she said. “We have you in power to make those decisions for your constituents.”
Resident and community leader Arlette Flores agreed and said the board should respect the community’s needs.
“We’ve been talking about this for two years. We’ve done the research and looked into options for you so now the challenge is yours,” she said. “This is a need that needs to be done now, so we’re not repeating ourselves and asking again in two years.”