The Undocumented and Uninsured Dilemma: Leave the Hospital in Debt or Dead

Wednesday, June 6th 2018

By Wei Lee (ASPIRE) & Madeleine Villanueva (UPLIFT)

In the upcoming weeks, the California Legislature will be deciding on the expansion of Medi-Cal to open up coverage to all Californians regardless of immigration status. Two proposals are on the table - one to cover the young adult population between 19 and 25 years old (AB 2965 - Arambula) and the other for the elder population of 65 years and older (SB 974 - Lara). Both these efforts are a step forward, bringing us closer to realizing the idea of health care as a human right.

Nowadays, there are limited medical care resources for undocumented Californians. Safety net programs offered by counties, like Healthy San Francisco and My Health LA, cover non-emergency situations and have been proven to work. But this is not enough. For the many Californians who are undocumented and uninsured, seeking health care becomes a choice between debt or death. Either we find ways to deal with the out of pocket expenses or go without medical care and risk further harm.

Inaction on our elected officials’ part will only exacerbate this problem and further hurt the well-being of our vibrant immigrant communities. We ask them to look beyond the costs and data, and recognize that we, the undocumented and uninsured, are more than these numbers. We are human beings who want to continue living with dignity and respect, and access to health care will help achieve this.

Our own personal narratives are filled with stories of the failures of the current healthcare system. In 2010, Wei’s oldest brother, Alex, was rushed to the hospital after persistent pain in the head where he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He too was undocumented and uninsured, and Wei feared that this was a death sentence for his brother. Fortunately, Alex was able receive care through emergency Medi-Cal and eventually full scope Medi-Cal as a DACA recipient. He is alive and in remission today, but the treatments left his cognitive functions greatly impaired.

Similarly, in 2014, Madeleine’s mom, Maddie, was taken to the emergency room after severe stomach pains. The cancer she had spent years and money fighting had recurred. Local county programs helped cover early medical costs, but her family eventually had to turn to online crowdfunding and fundraising to meet the extra expenses and loss of income. Maddie’s cancer proved too strong, and she passed away in 2016.

Our loved ones’ stories show that preventive health care could have made all the difference, allowing Alex and Maddie to detect their cancer earlier and to continue living a healthy life. People, regardless of their immigration status, should not be afforded medical services only when they are approaching death.

There is still time to ensure that these types of narratives don’t continue. We worry about our aging parents and other undocumented loved ones. We have made peace that they too will pass one day, but we hope that it will not be because they could not access or afford the treatments that could save their lives. We have grown frustrated by having our sick and dying turn to online fundraising to pay for their medical expenses. We as a community support and uplift each other during those medical emergencies, so when will the state of California start doing the same?

The current administration endorses the dehumanization of immigrants—calling us animals, permitting murders on the border and deaths in detention centers, and vanishing roughly 1,500 asylum-seeking children. If California truly wants to be the leader in resisting the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the nation, now is the time to act. We must move forward and bring health care for all, regardless of age and immigration status.

Wei Lee is the Program Coordinator for ASPIRE, the first pan-Asian undocumented group in the country and a program of Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus. He currently lives in San Francisco.

Madeleine Villanueva is a member of UPLIFT, an undocumented API youth organization housed in Advancing Justice - Los Angeles. She currently lives in the Los Angeles area.



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