By Dr. Julian Perez
As a provider at Sea Mar, a safety net community health center, I see the reality of our health care system: When people don’t have the means to pay for health care, they delay seeking care until it’s an emergency. To make matters worse, many life-saving treatments such as organ transplants are only available to insured patients.
Right now, there are 73,000 people in Washington who cannot get health insurance because of their birth. We are a nation of immigrants that runs on immigrant labor. Immigrants build our homes, they grow our food, and many have lived in the United States most of their lives. But when they get sick, their immigration status denies them health insurance status. This year, the Washington State Legislature could change this dire situation by expanding insurance access criteria.
Recently, I dealt with a shocking case that showed how lack of access to insurance causes unnecessary pain and suffering. One of my patients was diagnosed with an aggressive but treatable form of leukemia. She lived and worked in the US for 17 years and had three young children who were all US citizens. Unfortunately, despite years of working in this country, my patient was undocumented and therefore ineligible for insurance at the time. His oncology team was able to put him on medication to manage the disease, but full treatment required a bone marrow transplant — a service that hospitals won’t provide to uninsured or undocumented people.
Unable to afford a bone marrow transplant, my patient developed an allergy to the class of medication that was keeping him alive and died. The experience of their mother dying, effectively because her immigration status stood in the way of access to insurance and treatment, was traumatic for her family.
There is no subtlety to this issue: we are executing our neighbors because they were born in a different country.
Most undocumented workers are stuck in a tragic Catch-22. The U.S. desperately needs them to fill needed jobs in agriculture, construction and elderly care, but there is no legal system in place to allow them to do the work they have been doing for years.
Now is the time to treat undocumented people as people. In my work with low-income patients, I’ve seen people feel proud when they can get insurance. Insurance means people can visit a doctor regularly and not panic that they will lose their home or family when they feel sick. Insurance gives people a sense of dignity and worth.
Insurance also saves our state from spending on unnecessary emergency care. Working in a garden or meat packing plant is physical labor that takes a toll on the human body. The insurance will allow people to get regular physicals, screenings for cancer and detect kidney disease before surgery is needed.
This year, the Washington state legislature has an opportunity to fully fund a state-based coverage program for people who meet income requirements for Medicaid but are ineligible because of their immigration status.
It’s time our state recognizes the reality of our workforce and expands access to insurance coverage for everyone in Washington.
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Julian Perez A family physician at Sea Mar Community Health Center.
📸 Featured image by photobyphotoboy/Shutterstock.com.
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