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15 May 2013

Closer Coverage: Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Families May No Longer Need to Drive to Mexicali for Health Care

Written by  Alejandra Alarcon
Alejandra Alarcon, as a baby, with her older sister, Gabriela, and brother, Robert, in the family van on a trip to Mexicali. Alejandra Alarcon, as a baby, with her older sister, Gabriela, and brother, Robert, in the family van on a trip to Mexicali.

As with a lot of other families living in the eastern Coachella Valley, when one of our family members fell sick, it meant driving about 100 miles across the border into Mexico, to the city of Mexicali, to get taken care of by a doctor.

The only other option, it seemed, was not being taken care of at all.

Now, because of health-care reform efforts in the United States, young people growing up today in the eastern Coachella Valley—the unincorporated rural communities of southern Riverside County—don’t need to go without health insurance the way I did. The scenario is finally beginning to change. At least it can change—if people here are made aware of the health services now available to them through federal health-care reform, right in their own community.

“We owe it to our country to inform the citizens to take advantage of all these resources that are available,” said Ronnie Cho, associate director of public engagement for the White House, during a speech about health care reform that I attended in Washington, D.C., as a reporter in April.

Cho is right. For the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to make a difference, people need to first be aware that health care is an option for them. People need to know that they can afford to visit a doctor, without having to stray more than a few miles away from their home.

When my family would go visit relatives across the border in Mexicali, we always took advantage of the opportunity to stop by the Mexican pharmacy to buy medicine for ourselves, as well as for our friends and neighbors who always requested some. As a child, I thought those trips to Mexicali to visit the doctor were the only way—it was just what people did—until later on in my youth, when my father got a job with a new trucking business that gave him medical benefits that included family coverage. Because my dad worked for a lot of different trucking companies during the years, and because there were lengths of time when he was unemployed, our health-care situation was never stable. for those few years, my family and I received the best health care we’d ever had.

“Young people are relatively healthy, so they think, ‘I don’t need health care,’ until something happens, and they actually need it,” said Cho.

Again, Cho got it right. I can remember my worried mother, back in 2008, telling my little sister and me that we once again did not have health insurance and would have to resume our trips to Mexicali.

In retrospect, I never minded the long trips to the doctor or dentist’s office. In fact, I never worried about my health. My parents always had medicine from Mexicali available in our cabinets for emergencies. For my siblings and me, it was not something that got in the way; it was something that we believed had to be done, because there was no cheaper option.

The irony is that even though being uninsured felt normal to me and my siblings growing up, it is families like ours who need that insurance the most. Families like mine who live in the unincorporated communities of the eastern Coachella Valley—most of us are Latino; many (like my parents) are immigrants; and many make a living as farm workers or do some other type of physical labor—are especially in need of the protections provided by health insurance, because of occupational hazards and other health risks associated with living in an area where people lack money and resources.

The Affordable Care Act, the bulk of which will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2014, is helping families like mine take control of our medical insurance, by providing options and a sense of security. It’s an idea—health-care security—that at one time, at least for my family, seemed impossible to imagine. The health insurance that for so long seemed like such a special privilege will now become available to more people than ever before.

The ACA was put into place in part to make sure insurance companies cannot end your coverage plan when you need it the most, cannot bill you into debt, and cannot discriminate due to pre-existing medical conditions.

Among other provisions, the ACA will secure medical insurance for American citizens after getting laid off or changing jobs. It will require insurance companies to cover the cost of mammograms and cancer screenings. And for the first time, young adults will remain eligible to be covered under their parent’s or guardian’s health-insurance plan through the age of 26, even if they are married.

As a result, 3.1 million young adults are now covered along with their families, and more than 107,000 Americans with pre-existing conditions who didn’t previously have insurance are now receiving health coverage, according to federal data.

If you know where to look, it is free and simple to apply for affordable or no-cost medical insurance programs such as Medicaid and the Childrens’ Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which cover medical services that include doctor check-ups, emergency care, hospital care, vaccinations, prescription drugs, vision, hearing and dental.

There was a time for a lot of us living here in the eastern Coachella Valley when driving across the border seemed like the easiest and most-affordable way to access health care. Fortunately, for many of us, that no longer needs to be the case. Our communities can have the security of health insurance that for so long seemed just beyond our reach, if we just know where to find it.

To see if you qualify for Medicaid or CHIP, or to apply online, visit insurekidsnow.gov. To find out what is your best insurance option for your specific demographics and needs go to finder.healthcare.gov.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

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