Assemblyman Ed Hernandez knows first hand how California’s health-care system can fail the working poor.
Several years ago, an elderly man came to visit Hernandez, an optometrist practicing in the predominantly Latino community of La Puente. The man had failed his eyesight test at the DMV and thought he might need glasses.
“I went through his case history and his examination,” Hernandez recalled. “Well, he failed not because he needed glasses, but because he had fluctuating blood sugar. That was causing a change in his vision.”
The doctor believed that the man had diabetes, which if left untreated could cause serious eye damage, even blindness. But luckily there was no evidence of that yet. “I told him, ‘You need to see your primary care doctor. You need to get on insulin or medication.'”
Hernandez didn’t hear from the man again until eight years later. “He had failed his test again. I looked and he had extensive diabetic retinopathy.” Shortly after that, the man died.
“Because he didn’t have the means to take care of himself,” said Hernandez, who, with his election to the Assembly’s 57th district, is the only practicing physician in the Assembly’s democratic caucus.
“It’s one of those frustrations I deal with on a regular basis. Here was an older guy who didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford it. Couldn’t afford to go and do his routine medical care.”
It’s one of the frustrations that drove Hernandez to run for Assembly, something he said he never dreamed he’d do. “All I ever wanted was to go back to the community I grew up in and provide health care. I would have been happy doing that until I retired.”
He also never thought he’d become a legislator at such an auspicious moment in the debate over health care.
“I’m ecstatic that I might be in the right place at the right time to be involved in that debate,” he explained.
Hernandez was born and raised in La Puente in the San Gabriel Valley region of Los Angles County. He worked his way though community college, and earned a biology degree from California State University, Fullerton, before getting a scholarship to study optometry at Indiana State University.
It was at Indiana that he met his wife, Diane, also an optometrist, who turned out to make a better Californian than he did a Midwesterner.
“It was a culture shock. But she adapted so well. She probably speaks better Spanish than I do now.”
Hernandez said he “caught the political bug” during his early years in private practice as he worked his way up the ranks of the California Optometric Association. He served as president of the organization in 2000 and 2001, then as legislative committee chair from 2001 to 2003.
When Assemblyman Ed Chavez termed out, Hernandez decided the time was right.
His opponent in the democratic primary was Renee Chavez, dental assistant and wife of Ed.
Hernandez called his race against Renee Chavez “very difficult and very ugly.”
“She was kind of the anointed one,” said friend and former state Senator Richard Polanco. As a result, Hernandez receive few endorsements from the political establishment in Sacramento, and the primary was bitterly fought. “Some of the mail got personal,” Polanco recalled. “I told him, when they throw mud at you, you better throw it back.”
Hernandez did enjoy the support of his colleagues at the California Optometric Association. The optometrists put over $325,000 (of his total $564,000) into Hernandez’ campaign.
Not to be left out, the California Association of Ophthalmologists (the other eye doctors) threw their financial support behind Chavez, putting $40,000 into her campaign. She spent $417,000, over half of it her own money.
“On a primary-care basis, the two professions compete for the same patients,” said Tim Hart, spokesperson for the California Optometric Association, explaining why the optometrists and ophthalmologists took sides. The two disciplines often skirmish over “scope of practice” issues, each trying to protect their own turf.
“We certainly hope we can count on him to advance optometrists interests,” Hart added, “but he’s not a one-note wonder. He’s given free or subsidized care to maybe 50,000 people over the years.”
Once he got to the Capitol, Hernandez was delighted to see the governor and the legislative leaders making a major push on health-care reform. Hernandez intended to introduce his own universal health-care legislation, but was soon enlisted into Assembly Speaker Fabian N