By Paulina Rojas
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif., Weeping as she narrated her story, Lupé (not her real name) an undocumented immigrant living in the Inland Empire, said she began feeling helpless and scared when her young son began having convulsions a few years ago. Like her, he had no health insurance.
Luckily for her, the nearby SAC Health System (SACHS), a federally qualified health clinic that does not turn uninsured patients away, enrolled the boy as a patient. The medications the clinic provided kept the boy’s convulsions under check.
Last May, when California launched its Health for All Kids program, SACHS helped enroll Lupé’s son in full-scope Medi-Cal, California’s name for the government program for poor people known as Medicaid in the rest of the nation.
Designed to provide health insurance for undocumented children who were left out of the Affordable Care Act because of their immigration status, the Health for All Kids is largely (71 percent) funded by the state, with the rest paid out of federal funds for emergency coverage.
Lupé’s son is among an estimated 250,000 children in California who have so far benefited from the program, said Dr. Jason Lohr, a family medicine practitioner at SACHS.
Lohr was a panelist at a February 7 round table ethnic media briefing here co-sponsored by New America Media and SACHS. Some 51 stakeholders, advocacy groups and media participated.
Discussions largely focused on how the program is attempting to close the gap in oral and mental health care coverage for low-income children. Paying for dental and mental health care is too expensive for uninsured families. Having full-scope Medi-Cal gives children access to dentists and behavioral health care providers at little or no cost.
Federally-funded health clinics like SACHS have been a boon for the Inland Empire’s low-income children. According to the Calfornia Healthcare Foundation, between 10,000 and 12,000 children in the Inland Empire transitioned from Emergency Medi-Cal to full-scope Medi-Cal when the Health Care for All Kids program launched, noted Lizbeth Bayardo, project manager of the Community Clinic Association of San Bernardino County.
Between May through December of last year, there were approximately 1,800 children that were newly enrolled into Medi-Cal in San Bernardino County and 2,800 children in Riverside County newly enrolled.
Maryellen Westerberg, who oversees the Behavioral Health Department at SACHS, pointed out that there was an acute shortage of mental health care providers in San Bernardino County: eight for every 100,000 mental health patients.
She said that anxiety and depression are the most common mental health issues that affect youth. Stigma surrounding mental health keeps many families from seeking help, she said.
But at SACHS, “We have come up with a much more creative way to intervene into families in their appointments when they are here for medical care,” she said.
When patients come in for a visit with their primary care provider, and if the physician diagnosis the patient has a mental health care issue, therapists and counselors come into the physician’s room to help the patient.
One such therapist is Sara Saenz- Pavon.
“By us coming to them and offering them those services while they are in the clinic setting and then we do follow ups, we continue to see them and offer those services to them in the clinic setting,” Saenz- Pavon said.
Panelists Dr. Gregory Mitchell, executive director of dental services at SACHS, spoke to the widespread prevalence of tooth decay among the Inland Empire’s like children in the rest of the nation.
“Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among children in the United States and sadly it is almost entirely preventable” said Mitchell..
Mitchell, citing from statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that more than 25 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 5 have decay and 50 percent of children age 12 – 15 have had one or more cavities.
He said that when Health for All Kids launched, he was expecting to see a larger increase in the number of young patients coming into his clinic.
“I was expecting a bigger bump of children coming in under this program than what we actually have seen so far,” he said.
Mitchell attributed this to a lack of information, as well as the fear among undocumented immigrants of accessing public programs.
Oftentimes children miss school due to oral pain, causing them to fall behind in their studies and in some cases even drop out.
“This is something that is a really serious problem” he said.
National Immigration Law Center attorney Mayra Joachin told the gathering that it was understandable that in the current “difficult” political climate, undocumented people are afraid to enroll in public programs because they worry that the information they provide on their application forms could be used to deport them.
“But I want to remind everyone that there are several state and federal laws to protect that information,” Joachin said. “As of right now, information provided will remain protected.”
She said California currently has pending legislation that will strengthen those protections. Under that, free legal help will be provided to undocumented immigrants during deportation proceedings, more assistance will be offered in criminal court and local law enforcement will be further limited in cooperating with federal immigration agents.
With additional reporting by NAM health editor Viji Sundaram.
This article was published on the Coachella Unincorporated website on Feb. 22, 2017.