Supervisors Face Backlash for Their Objection to Spanish Word

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Monday, June 13, 2011 | Orange County supervisors have run into a potential conflict over multiculturalism in health care delivery, seemingly without knowing it.

Last week at their public meeting, supervisors balked at the use of a Spanish word, promotora, in a mental health outreach grant. County Supervisor Shawn Nelson went a step further, questioning why the group, Latino Health Access, had the word Latino in its name if it was offering services on a countywide basis. The group had been selected by Health Care Agency staff through a formal scoring process.

HCA officials were nervous about the entire discussion and unable to effectively answer supervisors’ questions and concerns.

Supervisors delayed action on that grant and another, a Vietnamese community outreach grant, for two weeks to research their concerns about the use of Spanish titles and names.

The contract delay and comments by supervisors have drawn much attention from activists, Sacramento lawmakers and attorneys. The Latino Health Access board, which has been inundated with calls, is holding an emergency meeting today to discuss a formal response.

And Nelson is already backtracking from his comments and saying he is ready to approve the grant.

“Political opportunism,” said state Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana) in reaction to the contract delay, adding that he was “disappointed” in county supervisors.

“Organizations should be valued on their work, not the heritage of their name,” Solorio said.

State Senator Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) said the delay in mental health services concerned him, especially since he is a board member of the state’s Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, which oversees tax funds for mental health programs as a result of Proposition 63.

“I’m hoping the county Board of Supervisors reviews this,” Correa said.

“The names of most our cities are Spanish,” Correa said. “This is California. It’s a very multicultural state.”

“It’s shocking,” said Ken Babcock, executive director of the Santa Ana-based Orange County Public Law Center.

Babcock said the center was already researching legal action to challenge the amendment made by supervisors last week to change the word promotora to health care worker.

“We’re certainly going to take a hard look,” Babcock said.

It’s unclear whether supervisors intended to send a message with their action, but one was received.

“I have received nonstop phone calls from the community that are extremely concerned that mental health services are being withheld because Orange County supervisors have expressed concerns with using a Spanish word, promotora, and with the name of our organization, Latino Health Access,” said America Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access.

She said she remains surprised by the delay and the questions. “We’ve been working with the county of Orange for more than 18 years on a countywide basis,” she said.

It’s not the first time this year that supervisors have mixed national politics and health care.

During the March 22 Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Pat Bates proposed an amendment that drew a lot of attention in activist circles.

Bates amended a Health Care Agency contract that day to ensure that the services were used only for legal residents.

Bates mentioned at the meeting that with all the budget pressure from Sacramento, there would be increasing pressure on the county’s critical safety net. Bates added that supervisors should make sure that health and social safety program dollars are “serving only the legal residents of our county.”

Bates’ motion was seconded by chairman Bill Campbell and adopted by unanimous vote. HCA officials indicated that the directive would be too simplistic to implement.

The new mandate, as well as last week’s contract delay, now has many activists on edge, wondering whether Orange County supervisors are trying to join the nationwide immigration debate, much as Costa Mesa has become ground zero for pension reform in California.

Yet one supervisor said Friday there’s no intent to debate over illegal immigration. Nelson reached out to Latino Health Access, asking them to his offices to discuss the issue.

He said he questioned the name Latino Health Access because “I thought they would actually run clinics with a shingle out.” Nelson said his concern was that the name Latino might lead other Orange County residents to conclude that the program was meant only for Latinos.

“Any honest rational person understands why it might be problematic to call a clinic Latino health care if it’s offering health to the general public,” Nelson said.

After talking to officials from Latino Health Access Friday, Nelson said he was comfortable with the grant and ready to approve it.

“It was very helpful for them to explain,” Nelson said. “They are just training people that are using this model.”

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