Health Care Reform Advocates in New Mexico Target Information Gap

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ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Two years ago, when Dashiell Beardsley had a motorcycle accident, the University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) refused to admit him because they considered his condition "not that serious." After hours in the emergency room, he was sent away with only pain-reliever drugs. A week later, Beardsley, a 30-year-old Kwaik of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, began experiencing massive headaches. UNMH told him the next available appointment was a month and a half away.


"I was literally crying because of throbbing headaches," he recalled, 
"so I drove myself to ACL [Acomo-Canoncito-Laguna] Indian Hospital in San Fidel, about 60 miles west of Albuquerque." Suspecting a concussion, but with no medical equipment to run tests, doctors put him in an ambulance and sent him back to UNHM. "I still had to wait for 18 hours just to get a CT-scan.”

Beardsley’s experience mirrors the struggles of many low-income New Mexicans in getting adequate health care. About 22.6 percent of New Mexico’s population is uninsured — the 4th highest rate of uninsured in the country.

In the weeks since New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez announced her decision to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, community advocates have been working to get the news out to some 170,000 currently uninsured New Mexicans, including 83,000 Hispanics and 25,000 Native Americans. "There's a huge information gap about the health care reform law and the benefits it will bring," said Kim Posich, director of the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, at a recent round table briefing for ethnic news organizations across the state.

Getting people to know about the new benefits "is a challenge," agreed Ron Wallace, publisher of The Perspective magazine, a monthly serving African Americans who make up 2 percent of New Mexico’s population. The round table also drew representatives from Albuquerque's Vietnamese immigrant population whose numbers have grown since the city was named one of five urban resettlement sites for refugees. Asian immigrants, in fact, represent the fastest growing population in the state.

Speakers at the briefing celebrated the fact that Medicaid eligibility will now be expanded 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. Gov. Martinez also agreed to carry out state-run health insurance exchanges under the law.

"This levels the playing field," said Quela Robinson, staff attorney for the Center. "We're now confident to say that New Mexicans can take full advantage of the Affordable Care Act."

Sovereign Hager, staff attorney for DNA-People's Legal Services, Inc., representing Native Americans, pointed out that in border towns and surrounding reservations, 75 percent of Medicaid applications were denied. With the current expansion, "residents won't have to hitchhike anymore for chemotherapy or get an x-ray diagnostic test.”

Sarah Nolan, executive director of New Mexico's Comunidades en Acción y de Fé, described how rudimentary access to health care remains in many regions, particularly in the south. The problems are compounded by the fact that "there's no informational infrastructure...A lot of people just rely on word of mouth. Besides church bulletins, there’s nothing there in between.”

Amber Carillo, a veteran community organizer who brought her nephew Dashiell Beardsley to the briefing, shared her enthusiasm over the Medicaid expansion. “A lot of organizing has brought us to this moment,” she said. “It is just a joy that many people would now be eligible to get their health insurance.”

Carillo spoke with several publishers of pueblo newsletters who participated in the briefing. "Because we don’t have daily or weekly publications in the reservation, people don’t get the information on healthcare that they need. That's a job I'm interested in. Getting the word out now is key."

Note: 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