Monterey County to Close Gap in Health Care For Undocumented Residents

Monterey County to Close Gap in Health Care For Undocumented Residents

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Pictured above: Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real celebrates  Monterey County's expansion of health care services with leaders from COPA. Photo courtesy Laura Lawrence/Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real.

By a unanimous vote, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to provide specialty health care services to its approximately 55,000 undocumented residents.

The board said it would set aside $500,000 for the pilot project, set to launch in the fall.

The money will pay for lab tests, radiology and pharmacy services, all of which are generally unaffordable for the county’s undocumented residents, most of whom work in the agriculture or hospitality industry and seek health care at the county’s hospital emergency rooms.

Health care advocates acknowledge that it is a “modest start” for a county that houses the largest share (13.5 percent) of undocumented immigrants in the state. Monterey and San Benito counties together account for 62,000 of the state’s nearly 2.6 million undocumented population, according to 2013 figures from the Public Policy Institute of California. In terms of sheer numbers, Los Angeles has the largest number of undocumented residents, at an estimated 814,000.

Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition, said the county’s vote sends “a powerful signal that we can no longer exclude part of our community [from] our health care system.”

President Obama’s landmark 2010 Affordable Care Act excluded undocumented immigrants from all publicly funded health care services, forcing many of them to wait it out until their health issues could no longer be ignored.

The exclusion prompted Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, to introduce a Health for All Bill last year, which would provide health care for all Californians regardless of their immigration status.

Two months ago, Gov. Jerry Brown budgeted $400,000 to provide health care for the state’s undocumented children through Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people.

Lara’s SB 10 bill, which will be taken up by the legislature next year, will allow all adults, including those who are undocumented, to enroll in Medi-Cal, provided they meet eligibility requirements.

That bill will also allow undocumented Californians to buy health insurance on the state’s online exchange, Covered California, with their own money, provided the state succeeds in getting a federal waiver.

The Sept. 15 vote in Monterey County was the culmination of months of tireless work by the county-based non-profit membership organization Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA), said COPA leader Timothy McManus.

COPA leader Jack Herbig said that testimonials from a number of undocumented immigrants helped to persuade the County Health Department and the Board of Supervisors to vote for the pilot project.
One immigrant testified that she was constantly forced to have to decide whether to buy medication for one of her children or to put food on the table for her entire family.

The County Health Department is currently trying to determine which labs, pharmacies and health care outfits to fund to provide those specialty services.

Even though the pilot project, designed to fill gaps in treatment provided by health care clinics, is set to end when the money runs out, health care advocates here are hoping the program will continue with other funding streams.

Blue Shield Foundation has given the county $100,000 to administer the program.