October 27 2014

A recent episode on ABC’s hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” entitled, Only Mama Knows, tugged at our heart strings and brought to light for millions of TV viewers the reality of many undocumented families who suffer because of lack of access to affordable health coverage. The show’s latest episode chronicles the story of 10-year old undocumented Nadia who nearly dies from a massive tumor, while her mother, who is also undocumented, is nearly reported to Child Protective Services for not seeking medical assistance sooner.

The episode happened because individual people were willing to share their real life stories and struggles with Hollywood writers, and because those Hollywood writers were willing to amplify the essence of those real life stories through the power of fictionalized television drama. The episode was the result of a partnership between The California Endowment and Hollywood Health and Society (HH&S), a program at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that provides entertainment industry professionals with accurate and timely information for storylines on health.

Earlier this year, HH&S and The Endowment partnered with the Writer’s Guild of America, West to hold a workshop to educate television and film writers and producers on health care issues related to Obamacare, including the lack of access for many undocumented Californians. More than 80 writers were connected to experts and consumers on the issues of #Health4All, youth mental health, enrollment, and emergency care. Dr. Zoanne Clack, a writer and executive producer on Grey’s Anatomy, explained how the writers approached such a serious topic and incorporated it into the show, “Of course, we couldn’t tell every struggle of the undocumented and the uninsured. But hopefully Nadia’s story portrayed the importance of knowing your rights and seeking medical care before it’s too late.”

Nadia is not just a character on a television show – she represents the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States who are denied access to preventive care based on their immigration status. In California, over 1.4 million undocumented do not have access to routine and preventive services that keep them healthy, or treatments that can help manage or cure illnesses like Nadia’s.

Undocumented Californians are part of the fabric of our society – they are our neighbors, family, friends, colleagues, students and peers. They are Californians – and a key part of our workforce and economy. They contribute more than $130 billion to California’s GDP. In fact, a UCLA study found that if all undocumented Californians were removed from the state, California would lose 3.6 million jobs and its economy would shrink by $302 billion.

Yet they’re denied a human right. This isn’t a special privilege, but rather about leveling the playing field for all Californians. The uninsured, including undocumented immigrants, work hard, contribute to our communities, pay taxes and work in critical industries – they ought to have the same access to affordable health coverage as others.

Denying undocumented Californians access to care doesn’t only negatively affect them – it affects us all. Uninsured adults are more likely to visit the emergency room than adults with health coverage. Avoidable visits to the emergency room range as high as 56 percent of all visits, and overuse of emergency rooms is responsible for up to $38 billion in spending in the United States every year.

But there’s still hope – the times are changing. In a recent poll, 70 percent of young voters and communities of color—the future of California—expressed their support for extending coverage to Californians excluded from the Affordable Care Act. Even voters across the board, including conservatives, recognize that it’s the right thing to do, because no one should ever have to live in pain and fear like Nadia and her family.

And with attitudes changing, it’s important now more than ever that #Health4All had an opportunity to touch approximately 10 million viewers in one night and educate them about the challenges and barriers to health the undocumented community faces every day.

Click here to watch the episode.

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