Universal access to health care is critical

When we first started hearing about the swine flu, most of us thought it was just a public health fluke and that it would be forgotten just as quickly as it came about, and, it was, for a while. But now its back, and, having reached pandemic levels, the public health departments are saying officials say it’s going to be much worse this time around. Now it’s not just one child in an isolated county that is infected swine flu, it’s our colleague in the cubicle next to us, it’s that person standing next you in the lunch line.  It’s now H1N1, and not some bizarre animal virus.  Now we’re starting to think about public health and wonder how strong our health care delivery system really is.  

H1N1 has reminded all Americans that health can be precarious, and that like it or not we are all connected.  If indeed the swine flu outbreak taught us anything, it’s that the health of one of us has the potential to affect the health of all us – young and old, rich and poor, documented and undocumented. California is fortunate however, because it has a strong community clinic and health center network that forms the bedrock of the safety net system.  Serving on the front lines of public health, these clinics see patients with symptoms of H1N1, and treat them regardless of ability to pay. Health centers have mandate and mission to serve anybody who walks through the door, which is something many of our recently laid off blue and white collar workers have realized as they have sought out providers who will see patients without insurance coverage.

Health centers were a first line of defense in the early spring against H1N1. Nearly over night, health centers across the state reported experiencing a surge of patients during the initial outbreak, sometimes up to 30 percent.  One health center in Sonoma was forced to set up medical tents in their parking lot to deal with the increased patient flow. Because the vast majority of clinic patients have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line, and are likely to be uninsured, the fact is that the H1N1 outbreak could have actually been far worse and reached far higher levels of public panic had these patients not had health centers to turn to in identifying and treating their aliments – which brings me to another point.

One of the more prevalent populations clinics serve is the Latino population, many of whom are under-served or uninsured and whose heritage ranges from East Los Angeles to Peru.  The widely held belief is that these are the people who utilize emergency rooms and drive up the systems costs. Lost is the fact that studies have consistently shown that immigrants are among the least likely in society to seek health care when they are sick due to a number of factors that include cultural beliefs and economic predicaments.   Public sentiment towards this population is generally characterized by a lack of concern about their health and a belief that these individuals don’t have the “rights” of a naturalized citizen. But then outbreaks happen, like H1N1, and the public is forced to face the reality that it’s in our own best interest for the people around us to have access to health care.

For that reason, and to raise awareness about this critical issue, community clinics throughout California will be hosting health events October 5 -15 as part of Binational Health Week (BHW).   BHW is a project of the Health Initiatives of the Americas, a program of the School of Public Health at the University of California Berkeley.  The annual 10 day-long event promotes health care awareness and provides opportunities to receive routine medical examinations for California’s uninsured and under-served Latino population.  Clinics throughout the state will be facilitating community information sessions, health care referrals, medical screenings and treatment services for individuals who often go without basic health services because of language barriers or lack of insurance. Last year’s events saw an estimated 5,800 activities benefiting 550,000 people.

Political affiliations and personal feelings aside, I think we can all agree that community clinics and health centers provide a vital service to all of us in California.  All of our state’s residents deserve access to care, and it is in our collective best interest to support institutions that provide this care, regardless of financial background. Now more than ever we need to ensure community clinics and health centers are viable and able to answer the call of protecting the public’s health, particularly in times of crisis. Let’s help clinics now, before H1N1 becomes a bigger problem.

To find out what your local community clinics are doing to celebrate Binational Health Week visit: or call 1-888-895-0808.

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