A hotly contested issue in California, healthcare for the state’s undocumented residents was the topic of a recent workshop held by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. Attendees of the nearly five hour meeting heard speakers from many different walks of life, voicing their concerns and weighing the benefits and risks of re-expanding health care options for the undocumented in Sacramento County. Support for renewing coverage for the undocumented was high.
The county hearing room, nearly filled to capacity for the occasion, heard testimony from politicians, blue collar workers, medical professionals, business leaders, and non-profit activists among others, with almost overwhelming support for bringing back health care for potentially thousands of residents in the area.
After a call to quorum, testimony began with Dr. Sherri Heller, Director of Health and Human Services for Sacramento County. Heller laid out seven potential options for restoring coverage, each considering issues like number of potential enrollees, cost and complexity, and what each option would actually cover. The eighth option, “to take no action,” needed little explanation.
The role of the Department of Health and Human Services in this hearing was not to recommend any actions, but to do its best to lay out the potential costs and outcomes of different scenarios based on its findings. Heller also compared existing models in other California counties. She went on to cite Fresno as an “unusual case” in the state for its access to specialty care.
The seven action-based options on the table offer a wide range of paths the county can take. They all, however, hinge greatly on the implementation of President Obama’s executive order that would give legal status to an estimated 40% of the country’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants. His executive order is currently on hold pending a decision on its legality.
Later testimony included impassioned speeches from politicians, notably from Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a strong supporter of the California Endowment’s #Health4All campaign.
The chamber was filled with applause as Johnson pledged to do “whatever it takes” to restore health coverage to the tens of thousands of undocumented residents in the region.
“That’s the Sacramento we believe in,” the mayor announced to his colleagues and constituents.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty stepped up to the podium as well, offering his personal experience in the emergency room and attesting to the many people he has seen there who use the ER for their primary care.
“I don’t think you wanted to shut the door on health care for thousands of Sacramentans,” said McCarty sympathetically to the Board.
While recognizing the circumstances that caused coverage to be cancelled for those Sacramentans, McCarty also stressed a point that many others have stressed as well, the unsustainability of denying coverage to so many residents of the county. With the average trip to the ER in the hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, the assemblyman argued that to rely on those services instead of re-expanding coverage would be “penny wise and pound foolish.”
Similar sentiments were voiced by important figures from across the state, such as Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, who reminded the chamber of the role immigration has played throughout American history.
“Today’s immigrants are just as important as yesterday’s immigrants,” Valle affirmed.
As elected officials finished their remarks on this highly contested issue, groups granted ten minutes to speak rather than the usual two prepared their arguments.
First up were representatives of the Sacramento Building Healthy Communities, an initiative of the California Endowment, a private health foundation. They voiced concerns particularly for the “barriers” many in the Sacramento region face regarding access to health care.
Backed by dozens in the crowd wearing #Health4All campaign shirts, they made the case before the Board that restoring coverage for the undocumented helped citizens of the county as well.
Pointing out that “disease doesn’t discriminate,” they focused on the fact that keeping more people healthy, even those without documentation, would prevent the spread of illness and help to maintain a healthier, more productive community. For them, the answer is to allow those immigrants back into the health care system.
Following remarks from BHC leaders, Bishop Jaime Soto began with a sharp criticism of the 2009 decision that made this workshop necessary in the first place.
“The silence of the California leadership was deafening,” he said regarding the willingness at the time to let coverage for the undocumented disappear. The bishop also argued that the county had a moral and spiritual commitment to its undocumented population to restore health care access.
The final hours of the workshop were filled by testimony from ordinary citizens who patiently waited for their speaker slip to surface to the top of the pile.
“For two years I looked for a door that might open,” said one immigrant and mother of two who suffered along with her children from extensive medical issues. “At times I felt afraid.” She required a Spanish-to-English interpreter for her testimony, but her passion for the issue did not need translating.
More speakers requiring translation followed, all with personal experiences on the undocumented side of the health care debate.
“I just want to work,” said one man, whose insurance was denied to treat a work-related injury. “I can’t work.” The man had difficulty walking as he exited the chamber.
Despite a flood of support for the #Health4All campaign, it was clear that not all in attendance agreed. One voice of dissent came from Davi Rodrigues, a ranking member of Save Our State in Sacramento, an organization considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be a hate group.
In his opening remarks, Rodrigues began with criticism of the term “undocumented immigrant” itself. The phrase, he said was “dreamed up by people who are in support of illegal immigration.”
He went on to offer an alternative not yet heard by the chamber: repatriation. Rodrigues believes that the immigrants’ countries of origin are “responsible for their own upkeep.” If an undocumented immigrant is in need of medical care, he proposes directing them to the proper medical facilities in their home countries, dismissing the possibility that poor medical care could be what drives many people from their home countries in the first place.
Rodrigues also disparaged the amount of money each option would cost the taxpayers, something his opponents insist would, due to a healthier working population, pay for itself.
“Out here is not your constituency,” he said to the Board with a finger pointed to the crowd behind him. “They’re hard at work. They’re the ones where the money comes from, and they can’t be here because this is a work day,” he added suggestively.
After being asked to finish his remarks, the SOS leader turned his frustration towards Chairman of the Board Phil Serna, whom he claimed did not grant him the six minutes owed to him as a non-profit organization. Serna denied receiving such a request from Rodrigues, to which he struck his hand on the podium, instructed the Chairman to “read your mail next time,” and promptly left the chamber. Testimony continued shortly thereafter.
The views of Davi Rodrigues were clearly not shared by most in the room, as the remaining speakers showed their resounding support for the #Health4All cause. And after dozens of testimonies, the workshop was adjourned.
Although no measures were actually voted on in this workshop, and with no vote officially planned yet, Wednesday’s meeting was an important step forward in the conversation. For the undocumented residents of Sacramento County, basic health care, considered to be a human right by some, is finally within reach.