Undocumented Still Struggle to Find Adequate Healthcare

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On a recent Tuesday evening in Bay Area neighborhood, Marta waited to see a doctor. In recent months, she had developed a rash that covered her body, and her entire face had been swollen.

Marta, who did not provide her full name because she is an undocumented immigrant, was seeing a doctor at a free clinic for the uninsured that is open just once a week. Unlike most health-care facilities, this clinic is staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses, receptionists, and medical interpreters.

Volunteers believe many of those seeking care at RotaCare Richmond Free Medical Clinic at Brighter Beginnings, one of a dozen volunteer-run clinics founded by Rotarians in the Bay Area, are undocumented like Marta, although they do not ask patients about their immigration status.

“Most of the patients we see are working, and most of them are in low-paying jobs,” said Dr. Pate Thomson, a medical director at the clinic and a retired cardiologist.

Despite the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medi-Cal in California this year, about three million state residents remain uninsured. Of those, about one million are undocumented and thus are not eligible to enroll under Obamacare.

Prior to this year’s rollout of the Affordable Care Act, undocumented residents made up 20 percent of the uninsured population in the state. They now represent about 30 percent of the remaining uninsured, according to a report by the Health Access Foundation.

But that could change later this year. The state legislature is currently considering Senate Bill 1005, dubbed the “Health for All” act. Authored by Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach, the bill would allow undocumented people to sign up for Obamacare and Medi-Cal through Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange.

“I know from my own personal experience and other immigrant families that we knew that there are many difficult struggles that immigrants face as it is, and basic health needs should not be one of them,” said state Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a co-author of the bill whose district includes Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro.

Hopes for the bill’s passage this year dimmed last week when the Senate Appropriations Committee shelved it because lawmakers felt they did not have a full picture of its fiscal impacts. However, the bill could come back as an urgency measure before the Legislature adjourns in late August.

An estimated 2.6 million undocumented people — meaning those who came here illegally or who came here legally but then lost their legal status — live in California. About 273,000 reside in Orange County, which has the second-highest population of undocumented residents in the state next to Los Angeles, according to estimates by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Undocumented people make up about 10 percent of the state’s workforce.

Undocumented Californians also paid about $2.7 billion in taxes, including property, sales, and income taxes, in 2010, according to the most recent annual estimate available from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

“There’s this misconception that undocumented people are ‘takers’ — that they’re benefiting from public benefits but not contributing,” said Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment, which has embarked on a multimillion-dollar campaign — also named “Health for All” — to raise awareness about undocumented people and their inability to access health care.

Currently, 29 percent of undocumented adults nationwide receive health insurance through their job or have private insurance, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But the others may never see a regular physician. They use home remedies when they’re sick or injured, or they end up in the emergency room when their health deteriorates significantly.

In Orange County, a network of community nonprofits, including Latino Health Access and the Vietnamese Community of Orange County have outreach programs that help undocumented residents find medical care. Yet, despite having among the highest number of undocumented residents in the country, Santa Ana has a dearth of free clinics to serve these residents.

SB 1005’s proponents, who include traditional health advocates and immigrant rights activists, say the legislation will decrease the amount the state will have to pay for emergency treatment of undocumented residents. It’s unclear, however, exactly how much the state would save.

A recent study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that undocumented Californians currently show up at the ER at about half the rate of US-born residents. But undocumented people may be avoiding the ER because of their fear of being deported.

SB 1005 also promises to help undocumented people who end up with lifelong health problems because they don’t seek medical treatment. When Akiko Aspillaga was sixteen years old, she hurt her knee badly during a soccer game.

Afraid of how much it would cost to go to the ER or see a doctor, she and her family decided not to seek professional treatment. Without health insurance, Aspillaga, who immigrated to California when she was ten from the Philippines, used a home treatment, alternating hot and cold packs.

“My friend said my knee popped out and popped back in,” said Aspillaga, now 24. “All I know is that I couldn’t walk for a few hours.”

Today, Aspillaga can’t do any strenuous exercise without feeling pain in her knee. She recently graduated from nursing school, a career path she chose in part because she wanted to make sure she could help her mother in case there was a medical emergency.

Aspillaga is currently a community organizer at Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education (ASPIRE), a network of Asian and Pacific Islander undocumented young adults, many of whom have received DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — an immigration status that allows them to work — in the past two years.

Students who have received DACA are also eligible for Medi-Cal if they qualify by income but are specifically excluded from purchasing insurance through state exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.

The state legislature is also considering several other bills that would affect immigrants. Most recently, the state Senate passed SB 1159, which would allow undocumented people to get licenses in the health-care industry and other jobs.

Proponents of SB 1005 are heartened by the fact that public opinion about undocumented people has changed dramatically in the state in recent years. A 2013 survey by the PPIC showed that 76 percent of Californians believe that “illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for at least two years should be given a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status.”

If the bill fails to pass, about one million people in the state will continue to be excluded from Medi-Cal and Covered California because of their immigration status.

Those like Marta will continue to use the safety-net clinics. Marta, who emigrated from Guatemala, has diabetes and has been back to RotaCare about a dozen times in the last six months. Her rash has improved and she’s grateful she’s been able to receive some treatment.

This article first appeared on May 21 in the East Bay Express and has been edited from its original version. It is a project for The 2014 California Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism that receives funding from The California Endowment.

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