Mentally Ill and Refugees Will Benefit from Health Care Law

Mentally Ill and Refugees Will Benefit from Health Care Law

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. – A DREAMer, single, low-income and 22, is waiting to enroll in Medi-Cal when it expands Jan. 1, 2014 under Obamacare, so people like him will finally have access to health care.

A psychiatrist is eager for Obamacare to roll out because his patients will no longer be discriminated against by insurance companies.

And a public health care worker who helps refugees from African and Middle-Eastern countries says once Obamacare is launched she will no longer have to witness her clients getting bumped off health care benefits eight months after they arrive in the United States, even as they are still trying to navigate the new culture.

The three -- New (Jirayut) Latthivongskorn, Dr. Rodrigo A. Muñoz and Amina Sheik Mohamed -- were speaking at an ethnic media briefing organized by New America Media (NAM) here at the Jacob’s Center Sept. 25, just days before Open Enrollment begins for two key provisions in the health care reform law, popularly known as Obamacare: Medi-Cal expansion and Covered California, the online health insurance marketplace.

A recent poll shows that 24 percent of Californians still don’t know about Obamacare even though it’s been three years since it became law, and the information gap is biggest for immigrants and communities of color, as The Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo noted in a video aired at the briefing.

Thailand-born Latthivongskorn talked about all the sacrifices his parents have made since they came to the US 13 years ago to provide him the best education, but through it all neither he nor they have had any health insurance. They relied for health care on the “well-stocked pharmacy” of medicines they have from Thailand.

“When you have no health insurance,” the newly-minted UC Berkeley graduate said, “you have to spend all your time living to not get sick.”

Now that he is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient – given to youngsters who have been brought to the country when they were 16 or under and who have lived in the United States continuously for five years -- Latthivongskorn will be able to get state-sponsored Medi-Cal within a couple of months, but his parents, who work in low-paying jobs, will likely continue to remain without health insurance until their immigration status changes, the young man said.

“As great as (Obamacare) is, undocumented immigrants will not be eligible for any of it,” Latthivongskorn lamented, noting that his determination to become a doctor was largely influenced by seeing immigrants like his parents struggle for lack of health insurance.

But its shortcomings, notwithstanding, the ACA will help reduce the discrimination by insurance companies against mental health patients, noted Muñoz, a professor of psychiatry at UCSD and the former president of the American Psychiatric Association. Insurers limit the amount of care mental health patients can access, he said.

The ACA will require insurers to treat psychiatric illness like any other. It will also remove many of the obstacles to fair treatment, Muñoz said.

Mohamed, program director at UCSD’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, and active in the African and Middle-Eastern refugee communities, said that if refugees can now enroll in Medi-Cal because of its expansion, they need no longer face the short-term health care their refugee status now limits them to.

That aside, Obamacare will allow refugees to access the mental health services they so acutely need, she said.

“Refugees come to the United States with a lot of anxiety and stress,” she pointed out. “They need mental health care.”