Advocates push LA County to insure more unauthorized immigrants

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The uncertain fate of a bill in the California legislature that would bring unauthorized immigrants under the umbrella of the Affordable Care Act has advocates pinning their hopes on expanding an L.A. County program that provides some coverage to those in the US illegally. But the county health department says it does not believe it needs more funds for the program.

Late last month a state senate committee postponed acting on SB 1005, a bill sponsored by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) that would make unauthorized immigrants eligible for Medi-Cal or state subsidies to buy private health insurance. 

Now, immigrant advocates in southern California are calling on L.A. County officials to expand Healthy Way L.A. Unmatched, which focuses mostly on providing support for emergency care for the uninsured. The county currently allocates $55 million for it each year, enough to cover about 100,000 people. In recent weeks, advocates have been calling for the funding to be tripled, hoping to cover many more of the hundreds of thousands of uninsured and unauthorized residents estimated to be living in the county.

Socorro Vasquez is typical of those the advocates say need more help. She was already struggling with arthritis when she attended a health fair at her East Los Angeles church four years ago and learned she had diabetes, too.

RELATED: Lara estimates Medi-Cal expansion would cost more than $350 million

In addition to the aloe and cactus gels she already rubbed into her joints, she added to her shopping list a tea made of bark from the cuachalalate tree, which friends told her was good for cleansing the blood.

These remedies were not her first choice for treatment, but Vasquez, a nanny who has lived in the US illegally for 20 years, has no health insurance, and can’t afford the drugs that would keep her ailments under control.

"Sometimes I don’t want to get out of bed, because I can feel my blood sugar is too high," she said. "But I have to, to go to work."

Expanding Healthy Way L.A. Unmatched is "a just thing to do, and it’s timely. It’s a good investment to make for those who do not have access to healthcare," said Father Bruce Wellems, pastor of the San Gabriel Mission Church.

But the County Board of Supervisors has not indicated it will allocate more funding for the program, nor has the Department of Health Services, which runs it, requested any more money.

Michael Wilson, a spokesman for the department, said that’s because the existing allocation for Healthy Way L.A. Unmatched isn’t even being fully spent.

But advocates believe upcoming reforms to the program will change that. This year the county is redesigning it to provide preventive services more than emergency care. Immigrants advocates say say this is a good thing, but they also say the move will attract more immigrants to the program because they’ll be able to get care they need without having to wait until their conditions become urgent.

"The county knows that the funding level that currently is available is inadequate," said Jeff Brewer, a policy specialist with the California Partnership, one of the groups pushing for more funding. "I’m not sure why they haven’t just stepped up and said, OK, let’s take a look at what we really need."

Wilson, the health department spokesman, said the county plans to monitor how many people sign up for the redesigned program, and then decide whether more funding is needed.

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