ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Two years ago, when Dashiell Beardsley had a motorcycle accident, he said that the University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) had to deny his request for admission because his condition was "not that serious.”
After waiting for hours at the emergency room, Beardsley said, he was released with only pain-reliever drugs. He walked away with a broken arm and shoulder.
A week later, Beardsley, who is a Kawaik [a Native American tribe of the Laguna Pueblo], began experiencing massive headaches. The pain was unbearable that he rushed back to UNMH, hoping that a doctor at the hospital would see him.
Instead, due to lack of hospital rooms and shortage of attending physicians, he was told that the next available appointment was a month and a half away.
"I was literally crying because of throbbing headaches," he said. "I could not take it anymore so I drove myself to ACL [Acomo-Canoncito-Laguna] Indian Hospital in San Fidel, about 60 miles west of Albuquerque."
The doctors at ACL, which is located in the Laguna reservation, suspected that he had a serious concussion. The facility, however, had no medical equipment to run a series of tests on him, so Beardsley was immediately put on an ambulance back to UNHM.
"If the hospital here sees that you're not paying from your own pocket and you're not dying, most likely you won't be admitted," Beardsley said. “When they took me back to UNHM, I still had to wait for 18 hours just to get a CT-scan.”
Beardsley’s experience mirrored the struggles of many in New Mexico --mostly low-income and ethnic minorities—in getting an adequate and accessible health care services. About 22.6 percent of New Mexico’s population is uninsured—the 4th highest rate of uninsured in the country.
Facing budget cuts, most hospitals, like the UNMH, have been experiencing shortage of rooms and medical practitioners, making it burdensome to individuals in need of proper health care.
But in the weeks since New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez opted for expansion of the Medicaid program under Pres. Obama’s health care law, community advocates here have backed the decision of the Republican governor, noting that it will vastly benefit uninsured ethnic minorities and narrow racial health disparities in the state.
The expansion, according to them, will be able to include about 170,000 currently uninsured New Mexicans. Of that number, at least 83,000 are Hispanic and 25,000 Native American.
Advocates also said that the expansion would provide better health care services to African Americans, which makes up about 2 percent of New Mexico’s population, and Asian immigrants—mostly Vietnamese and Filipinos—the fastest growing population in the state.
Gov. Martinez, on January 8, became the second Republican governor to agree on expanding Medicaid eligibility to individuals earning annually up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, which, in 2012, was $14,856 for an individual or $30,656 for a family of four. She also agreed to carry out state-run health insurance exchanges under the law.
“The playing field is now getting even and everyone can get Medicaid. This is great news,” said Quela Robinson, staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “We’re now confident to say that we [New Mexicans] can take full advantage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).”
Because health disparities are often exacerbated by lack of insurance, she said, the Medicaid expansion program under the ACA, known as Obamacare, is critical to continue the declining death rates caused by a number of illnesses among ethnic groups in New Mexico.
Since 2007, the number of deaths among Native Americans due to drug overdose, alcoholism and motor vehicle accidents has dramatically plummeted. There’s also been a steady decline of deaths among African Americans due to diabetes, pneumonia and flu.
And in the Hispanic community, Robinson added, teen and adult obesity have also flat-lined in the last five years.
“The structure of healthcare system is racialized,” said Sarah Nolan, executive director of NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé. “With a governor that listens to our stories…it helps on how we create policies that could be productive in that arena,”
Nolan described how rudimentary the access to healthcare is in many parts of New Mexico, particularly in the south.
Because there is no informational infrastructure in place—and newspapers could not even reach the remote areas—many residents don’t have enough information on the Obamacare and how they’d benefit from it.
“A lot of them just rely on word of mouth,” she said. “Besides church bulletins, there’s nothing there in between.”
In border-towns and surrounding the reservations, 75 percent of Medicaid applications in previous years are denied, according to Sovereign Hager, a staff attorney for DNA-People’s Legal Services, Inc. But with the current expansion, she believes that it would largely help many residents in the area.
“These residents are not going to hitchhike anymore for chemotherapy or get an x-ray diagnostic test,” Hager said. Residents in the reservations need proper care in their homes. They don’t need to be in a nursing home to have it.”
Although the political process was often challenging, advocates here have continually worked with the governor and other state lawmakers to alleviate the gap in health care.
Since 2008, worried that the state won’t expand Medicaid, leaders and active members of minority communities called their congressional representatives.
“A lot of organizing has brought us to this moment,” said Amber Carillo, a community organizer. “It is just a joy that many people would now be eligible to get their health insurance.”
This story was written as part of a series of press briefings with ethnic media that New America Media has been conducting in seven cities in the country this year. This project is funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies
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