June 29 2016

Orange County is simply not the same without Disneyland. Silicon Valley would suffer without Google and Apple. Kern County would fail without agriculture, and Kern County’s agricultural economy would collapse without farm workers.

Our farms and ranches — our way of life — would not thrive without ag workers, who are the force that powers this powerful economic engine. What would happen if they went away? What would happen if they were too sick to work? I don’t want to know, but we shouldn’t have to find out.

Undocumented Californians constitute a vast majority of farm workers in our state. Thousands of these adult residents plant our crops, pick our produce, pack our trucks and keep the agricultural industry humming, yet the only access they have to health care in Kern County is in the emergency room, and the county spends billions of dollars each year on emergency room costs because that’s where families go when they don’t have health care.

It’s easy to see that prevention is smarter than treatment and more cost effective. As a reminder, we all pay for these trips to the ER because the county passes along these costs. In spite of these facts, there is no health care safety net for undocumented residents in our county. Fortunately, we have made some progress where children are concerned. Thanks to the work of Building Healthy Communities-South Kern, many organizations and outspoken residents and youth, children ages 0-19, are now eligible for full-scope Medi-Cal benefits, regardless of immigration status.

As a health care promotora in Kern County, I have witnessed many scenarios where mothers have to wait until their children are extremely sick to take them to ER. Sometimes the children suffer more than they have to, because this could have been prevented if the child had access to health care or affordable insurance. Personally, I have a niece who has an eye problem, and when she had a free physical at school, she was told that she needed to see a specialist. Unfortunately, my sister-in- law did not have the means to pay for the specialist.

With this new law my niece now can get the right treatment for her eye — and that’s just one child who’s going to benefit from this. I can only imagine all the children just waiting for some kind of necessary treatment. I’m very happy because of this big step — however, we still have a lot of road to cover. We need health insurance for the parents of these children, because they are the bread winners and without them where would these children go? What would happen if these parents fell sick and became unable to work and provide for their children?

If we can cover children, we can cover adults. A health care system that excludes anyone hurts everyone. Providing preventative care is not only the right thing to do, but it saves money and keeps our communities healthy.

Besides, these residents have earned the right to have a health care safety net. According to various sources, undocumented residents pay about $3 billion a year in taxes to the State of California and federal government. When undocumented residents go to Vons to buy groceries, the clerk doesn’t check their immigration status, they just take their money.

Ultimately, we need to change our system to provide healthcare for all because it’s about people, but we need to persuade the powerful to have the political will to do what is right. I hope our county officials and hospital begin to provide health coverage that is accessible and affordable, and members of the community should also have a more prominent voice on this issue. The Board of Governors for the Kern Medical Hospital Authority should select a member of the community to fill their newly open position.

Health care is a basic human need, and a health care system that serves everyone is critical for public health, safety and economic security. Many state leaders are pushing legislation that will cover all people, but we can still act locally.

Providing preventative health care for each person helps all people.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Bakersfield Californian. Click here to read it there.

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