Miguel Arias: Affordable Care Act coverage just in the nick of time

FresnoMay 10, 2014 

While I sit at my mother's side as she recovers from brain surgery at Community Regional Medical Center, I am compelled to write about how our experience relates to the relevancy of the Affordable Care Act.

As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently referred to it, my parents — like many immigrants — came here as an "act of love" for us. Since our arrival in the 1970s, my parents have toiled in the fields while never receiving the welfare benefits that as legal residents and citizens we had a right to and — at times — needed greatly, though we did pay our taxes.

My parents' sacrifices gave their children the foundation of a strong work ethic that has served us well as we worked our way out of poverty and into the American dream of going to college, gaining meaningful employment, owning a home and joining the middle class.

Unfortunately, my parents' elementary education and basic work skills limited them to careers as seasonal farmworkers in Fresno County. Our family is not ashamed of this, as my mother once said: "There is dignity in hard work and shame is for those who take what they have not earned." After almost 40 years, my mother retired last year and began receiving her $298 monthly Social Security benefit.

Like many American families, until recently we were unable to provide our parents with the one thing that they needed more than anything — health care coverage. As a result, we responded to health issues by relying on the generosity of local physicians such as Dr. Oscar Sablan and trips to Mexico for prescriptions.

The Affordable Care Act finally gave our family the opportunity to purchase affordable health care for our parents. The monthly premiums for my mother alone are $140 — almost half of her Social Security. We signed up effective April 1. This coverage couldn't have come at a better time.

On April 4, my mother had an extreme headache that prescription pain medication didn't relieve. An emergency room visit revealed a tennis-ball-sized tumor in her right brain that had been growing for years. As we faced the possibility of losing our mother, there was only one concern our mother expressed. If it became necessary, she insisted that we not pay for her funeral by borrowing money or hosting car washes. Instead she asked we use her $8,000 savings account to pay for the funeral. On April 7, we entrusted our mother to the surgeons and nurses at Community, and they gave her back to us tumor free.

The bill for her life-saving surgery will soon arrive and won't be cheap. However, prior to the Affordable Care Act, the cost would have bankrupted our entire family, threatening the progress that we have made in working our way out of poverty.

Farmworkers and working families like mine deserve an opportunity to obtain health coverage that can diagnose brain tumors long before an emergency room visit.

The Affordable Care Act is not a "freebie," nor should it be. The contributions documented/undocumented farmworkers make to our profitable multi-billion-dollar agriculture economy are not free either. Families like mine will meet our responsibility to supplement our parents' retirement. However, if the responsibility for the long-term cost of workers is not collectively shared by workers, employers and consumers, it will eliminate more middle-class families. Nor can we afford to have emergency rooms become the default health care system for farmworkers.

If the Affordable Care Act and the local Medically Indigent Services Program are unacceptable to policy makers — most of whom benefit from government-funded health care — then we should consider incorporating health care for farmworkers into the existing multi-billion dollar agricultural subsidies or require employers to provide coverage and pass on the cost to consumers.

Allowing working families to go bankrupt from emergency room visits would threaten the American dream of upward mobility and continue to hide the full cost of operating the world's bread basket. Furthermore, it would harm the collective interests farmers and farmworkers have developed in our joint fight for more water.

It is time to focus on making sure the health care system works so that all of our parents can retire with the health and dignity they have earned.


Miguel Arias of Fresno is former chairman of the 2008 Drought Relief Committee.

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