California health care advocates discuss new challenges

December 19, 2016 9:44 AM CST By Marilyn Bechtel

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Leaders in California’s extensive public health reforms gathered here Dec. 13 to think together about how to carry forward the state’s achievements, as the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump portends a very uncertain future.

The discussion emphasized the urgency of building a broad national health care reform campaign, forming networks across issues including immigrant rights, labor rights, environment, housing and homelessness, jobs, and more. Participants affirmed their commitment to upholding the many gains of recent years, including building Covered California’s health exchange and expanding MediCal (the state’s Medicaid) coverage under the Affordable Care Act, as well as covering undocumented immigrants.

Following the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, more than a third of Californians, and over 60 percent of children, are now covered by MediCal. Some poorer Central Valley regions represented in Congress by Republicans have the highest proportion of MediCal coverage, topped by Tulare County at 55 percent.

The afternoon also featured many tributes to the broad Health Access coalition, now celebrating its 30th anniversary. The coalition’s 100-plus members include health policy organizations, health providers, labor, immigrants, women’s, seniors and LGBTQ rights organizations, community and religious groups.

In his keynote remarks, Health Access Executive Director Anthony Wright outlined the problems the state’s public health care community faces. “The scale of what we’re talking about is major,” he said, rivaling the slashes to health care eight years ago during the Great Recession.

The first fight will be the repeal of large parts of the Affordable Care Act, he said, with the U.S. House of Representatives voting in early January followed by a Senate vote in mid-January, so the new president can sign the legislation on or soon after Inauguration Day.

“If Congress can rip away the health care for 30 million people without a pushback,” Wright said, “it will just keep going. Our first job is to be very clear: it is wildly irresponsible to repeal the ACA, especially with no replacement in place. Three or four senators, a handful of House members, need to recognize the chaos and backlash that would cause, and see the cliff they are now hurtling toward.

“So,” Wright said, “we need to be prepared for a sprint in January, and for the marathon ahead.”

Wright emphasized working with and educating California’s large Congressional delegation, and the importance of being part of a broad national campaign.

On its 30th anniversary, Health Access can point to a long list of achievements, from its fight in the mid-1980s to outlaw “dumping” of uninsured patients, through the coalition’s recent role in supporting the launch of Covered California, the state’s health benefits exchange under the ACA, and making sure the MediCal expansion included immigrants, LGBT communities and people of color.

In just four hours, featured speakers and panelists including leaders from a broad range of health-related organizations shared their perspectives on waging the most inclusive and effective fightback.

Health Access’ Tam Ma noted that without the Affordable Care Act, millions wouldn’t be able to afford coverage, and millions more would fall out of the safety net. Preventive care would cost more than people can afford, and insurance companies could pick who and what conditions they were willing to cover.

“This was the reality until not too long ago,” she said. “It would be hard to imagine going back to a world without the consumer protections and financial support provided through the ACA and our other health care programs.”

State Senator Ed Hernández, D-West Covina, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, put it this way: “We have a two-tiered system: one for those with means and one for those who are poor. You can predict someone’s life expectancy by their zip code. What does that say about the most powerful country in the world?” If we care as a country, he said, “we have to ask that question of those who would dismantle what we have.”

Edwin Park, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, envisioned two stages: repeal of the Affordable Care Act without any guaranteed replacement, and then, if a replacement plan is enacted, threats to Medicaid and Medicare.

“We are seeing the largest threat to the social safety net that we have experienced,” Park warned, with 10s of millions threatened with loss of coverage, impaired life expectancy, and financial catastrophe.

SEIU State Council Executive Director Alma Hernández added, “In California, we are as close to universal health care as we ever have been. We have to make sure every conservative district in California understands the life-altering consequences their decisions have made.”

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, urged standing together as a united front and rejecting “little crumbs” from the incoming administration.

The “united front” theme ran throughout the discussion.

Diana Dooley, who heads California’s Health and Human Services Agency, said the state’s expansion of health coverage has been so successful because it was a bipartisan effort starting during Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term as governor in the mid-2000s. She urged informing members of Congress about the real consequences of precipitous action, and called on meeting participants to explore possibilities to interact with “red and blue states together.”

The California Pan Ethnic Health Network’s Sarah de Guia added, “It’s not about different groups, it’s really about the intersections of these groups. The LGBT, immigrant rights, communities of color who are limited-English-proficient, undocumented communities – all these intersections have to be at the forefront of the policies we put forward.”

Peter Lee, Executive Director of Covered California, cited the major role licensed insurance agents have played in the exchange’s expansion by signing up millions of new participants.  “Advocates take a lot of shapes and forms,” he said, “and we should be working with all of them.”

The California Immigrant Policy Center’s Ronald Coleman summed it up: “We haven’t yet looked at a horizontal expansion to make sure all Californians can benefit and get out of poverty.” He called on meeting participants to “make sure we are investing in programs so all Californians are thriving and we’re not just focused on who may benefit from programs today.”

Rep. Kevin McCarthy locks the door on California Medicare activists

January 30, 2017 12:08 PM CST  BY VERGIL LEWIS

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – Nearly 1,000 people from all over the state of California descended on the Bakersfield office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy Friday to demand that he drop plans to privatize Medicare and Medicaid and instead “protect, improve, and expand” these programs that are so vital to people in his district and across the country.

The rally, called and organized by the California Alliance of Retired Americans (CARA), the California Labor Federation, and Campaign for a Healthy California, brought in busloads of a very diverse crowd, including unionists, senior activists, and youth of every race and ethnicity in this state.

Congressman McCarthy’s district, a largely agricultural area toward the south end of California’s Central Valley, has the highest percentage – 51 percent – of constituents who rely on Medicare and Medicaid of any Congressional district in the nation, yet McCarthy has long been a proponent of vouchers and other schemes that would increase costs and restrict coverage for these vital programs.

He has a history of refusing to meet with constituents to discuss this issue. In fact, Rob England, director of the Kern/Inyo/Mono Central Labor Council, who emceed the rally, told of repeatedly finding the district office locked and staff members ducking under their desks when he attempted to arrange meetings; despite repeated attempts to set up a meeting with his staff during this event, staff refused and as usual locked the door.

Speakers at the rally included healthcare workers, patients, teachers, and representatives of several unions, including the California Nurses Association, United Domestic Workers, and United Farm Workers. Latinos were especially well represented, including patients and workers from the Clínica Monseñor Oscar Romero.

Several healthcare workers touched on the devastating consequences of lack of access to healthcare before and even in some cases after the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Oncologist Paul Song of Campaign for a Healthy California recalled how distressing it is to see patients going bankrupt because of the costs of cancer care or coming in with late-stage cancer because they could not access screening or preventative treatments.

Surgical nurse Sandy Reding of the California Nurses Association reported often seeing patients who require surgery because they had to choose between putting food on the table and paying for medications or seeing a doctor. Editha Adams of United Domestic Workers (UDW), a union representing 98,000 home care workers in the state, noted that 61 percent of home care funding for seniors or others needing it comes from Medicare and Medicaid, so that any move that restricts funding or access to these programs directly threatens their clients who cannot manage without the services they provide.

Speakers repeatedly called for expanding Medicare to cover all Americans and pointed out the importance of fighting to vote out Congresspeople like McCarthy who aim to deny Americans access to healthcare.

They also stressed the importance of building unity on this issue; as UDW president Doug Moore declared, referring to the political situation created by the Trump presidency, “This is not a time to be silent; this is a time to stand up, because standing down is not an option” – an affirmation enthusiastically repeated by the crowd.

Bernice Bernillaas, a retired teacher and a CARA activist, gave the participants “homework”: calling their Congressional Representatives and Senators not just once but repeatedly to voice their support for single-payer Medicare for All health care such as exists in every other developed country.

Since the Congressman had locked his doors, people taped signs to McCarthy’s office windows stating why they loved Medicare and Medicaid; McCarthy, or at least his staff, will have to read them when they take them down.  And then the crowd marched back to the buses, proclaiming, “We’ll be back.”

Via People’s World