By Bill Boyarsky
Some of the men and women rose at 3 a.m. to secure a place at the head of the line that extended a city block or more from the entrance to St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles.
This is life in a poor Latino and African-American area stricken with unemployment and inadequate medical care, made worse by the closing of the only nearby public hospital. The center is part of a fragile safety net in a country that so far has refused to agree that health care is a human right.
Jim Mangia, president of the center, explained to me that people line up for care long before the doors open at 8 a.m. Some patients turn up after long bus rides, taking their children with them because they have no child care.
I walked along the line, hoping for some interviews. Most were immigrants from Mexico or Central America and didn’t speak English. I found an English speaker, but she didn’t want to talk to me. In fact, she turned her head away without saying a word. Her face seemed to be a mixture of anxiety from waiting in line and scorn at being bothered at a moment when she was so sick and vulnerable. I walked away, feeling small and no longer up to my usual gambit of asking people why they were there when I already knew the answer.
The real question is whether such lines will ever be eliminated. The answer is in Washington, not in the blue-collar flatlands of South Los Angeles, a huge swath of the city where much of the housing is substandard and unemployment and poverty are high—as are the rates of diabetes, stroke, childhood asthma, lead poisoning and other ailments that target the poor.
Visit such a place anywhere in America and you can see why the health care reform bill—as limited as it is—must be passed. The twin evils of unemployment and a weak medical care system have reached deep into the country, leaving working people uninsured and unemployed and lengthening the lines in front of places such as St. John’s. “I think [the problem] has expanded 20 percent this past month,” said Ingrid Hernandez, a staff member.
That’s why President Barack Obama deserves support as he tries to persuade enough Democrats in the Senate and the House to pass the health reform bill. Obama is doing all he can. He lobbied Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, now a “no” vote, when they flew on Air Force One to Ohio for a presidential health care campaign speech. “Vote yes,” said a man in the crowd when Obama introduced Kucinich. “Did you hear that, Dennis?” asked Obama.
The bill would immediately benefit St. John’s Well Child and Family Center and more than 7,500 similar facilities around the country, which provide medical, dental, mental health, parenting instruction and other services to more than 17 million urban and rural poor. The centers are financed by a combination of government and nonprofit foundation funds, plus private donations.
The bill would provide the centers $700 million in the coming year, with annual appropriations eventually increasing to $2.9 billion, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. The centers would also receive $1.5 billion over five years for construction and renovation.
Jim Mangia told me that the number of clinics around the country would double. St. John’s would get $11 million from the reform bill, permitting more treatment sites and a reduction or an end to lines. “We have to put clinics in the neighborhoods where people live,” Mangia told me. “It’s very difficult to put the kids on a bus and schlep across town.”
The reform bill would also extend Medicaid, the federal-state assistance program. A family of four earning about $30,000 a year would be eligible for Medicaid. This means they could go a doctor near their home, rather than to a distant clinic.
But the provision wouldn’t take effect until 2014. Legal immigrants couldn’t take part until they had been in the country for five years. And illegal immigrants would get no benefits. These exceptions are the result of Obama and congressional Democrats surrendering to anti-immigrant hysteria.
I walked through St. John’s and saw how medical treatment taken for granted by the affluent and insured cannot only save a poor family from disaster but start it on the road upward by providing good health and a better life.
In addition to receiving lifesaving drugs, diabetics are taught the value of diet and exercise. Women who suffer domestic abuse are steered to support groups. Dentists and physicians work on patients and a laboratory backs them up. Mothers and fathers, in parenting sessions, are urged to read to their kids each day. Teams visit homes, looking for lead, rats and cockroaches. “We pull two dozen cockroaches out of kids’ ears every week,” said Mangia.
Nobody in America should have to live like this, without medical care that other industrial nations take for granted. The health reform bill is a start to ending this evil. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Bill Clinton—even Richard Nixon—tried to do something about health care and were beaten by the powerful special interests profiting from the present system. The interests, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the insurance industry and others, are at it again in the final days before the House vote, targeting the members who fear a “yes” vote will cost them their jobs.
I hope they have the guts to resist. “We need courage, that’s what we need,” President Obama said in Ohio. This bill, as imperfect it is, will begin the process of reforming a health care system that is unfair to the middle class and the poor alike. Health care, as Roosevelt said, is a human right. Passage of the bill would be a great legacy for this Congress.
AP / Wade Payne
Patients wait to receive medical attention at a facility organized by Remote Area Medical, a nonprofit organization, whose volunteers offer free health care to the uninsured, the underinsured and the desperate.