“Respect for other people’s rights is peace.” Benito Juarez’s words have rang in my ears ever since I organized farmworkers in the Central Valley, and most recently, as I reflected on the work that remains to be done to protect the health and well-being of all Californians, especially the most vulnerable.
Peace cannot exist alongside injustice. If we truly want to strive for peace in our society, we must work to secure the rights of all people. Fighting for the rights of ordinary people has been my life’s work, and that work continues as California faces a historic challenge: how to address the fate of the millions of Californians, many of them children, who remain without health insurance.
Affordable, accessible health care is a basic human right. That’s why every single industrialized nation provides some form of universal healthcare—every single one, except the United States.
In fairness, California has led the way in implementation of the Affordable Care Act, being one of 17 states to set up a state-run health benefits marketplace and one of 26 states expected to expand Medicaid, a vital program that offers health coverage to lower-income Americans. The expansion of Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, marks the largest expansion of health coverage in the state in 45 years. Because of these important measures, millions more Californians will have access to health care.
Despite the promise of health care reform, 3-to-4 million Californians will remain uninsured–over a million of them just because of their immigration status. California’s counties play a critical role in providing a health care safety net for the uninsured. Now more than ever before, the State must support them by providing well-funded safety nets at the local level.
Instead, Governor Brown’s revised budget threatens to take vital resources away from counties. Los Angeles County alone will lose an estimated $384 million in 2015-2016. In total, counties would lose $1.3 billion in funding that is currently used to pay for hospitals, community clinics and public health programs throughout the state. This amounts to a 75 percent reduction in state funding, coming at the same time as the federal government plans to cut funding to hospitals for treating the indigent and most vulnerable in half.
Among those hardest hit by these cuts are Latinos and children. More than one-third of uninsured Californians are Latino. Most are citizens or legal residents, although many of them are undocumented. Despite statements from groups like the American Association of Pediatrics calling for guaranteed access to health care for children, approximately 20 percent of the state’s one million uninsured children will be left out of health care reform because they or their parents do not have legal status. An estimated 170,000 children will be barred from enrolling in Medi-Cal or tax credits to help make purchasing private insurance affordable through Covered California, the state’s health benefit marketplace. Many of these children belong to mixed status families, in which some members are documented and others are not.
Cuts to the health care safety net will hurt hard-working individuals with dreams and aspirations. They are our mothers and grandmothers, sisters and brothers, farmworkers, aspiring professionals, and students. They are not expendable. Undocumented Californians make up one -tenth of California’s workforce, and help sustain the state’s multibillion dollar agricultural and service sector. They pay billions in state and federal taxes, and recent research from Harvard University shows they contribute far more to programs like Medicare than they take out.
Finding a solution for the undocumented—and all Californians who will remain uninsured after health care reform is fully implemented—is a matter of justice. Governor Brown and California’s legislators have a sacred obligation to fulfill the right of all Californians to have access to basic, affordable primary care. Even in an era of fiscal discipline, we waste billions of dollars in pork-barrel projects and corporate tax cuts. Yet when it comes to guaranteeing the right of everyone—especially California’s children and the poor—we continue to fall short.
In his inauguration speech this last January, President Obama said, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” These places are markers on America’s long march towards justice; each represents a time when America showed its commitment to the rights of its people. Now, it’s Sacramento’s turn.
Ed’s Note: Dolores Huerta, the voluntary president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, is a nationally known labor leader and civil rights activist who, along with César Chávez, co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW).