Forum explores impact of health care overhaul

imageLeticia Rodriquez, a nutrition assistant with the Watts Health Care Corporation and SEIU 721 member with her three children.

South Los Angeles residents gathered for a community health forum on Saturday, March 27, held at the Bethune Park, to hear Rep. Laura Richardson speak about the impact of President Obama’s health care overhaul on community clinics and hospitals.

“The bill is not perfect, but it’s a good start,” said Richardson, who just flew back from Washington D.C., after last weeks final vote on the bill. “From here we can begin to make improvements.”

Under the congresswoman’s 37th district, which includes Watts, Willbrook, Compton, Carson, Long Beach and Signal Hill, the bill will fund $11 million towards clinics, improve coverage for 299,000 residents and will extend coverage to 92,500 uninsured people.

“In America you have the right to life. You can’t have a life if you don’t have a healthy life,” said Richardson.

The bill will also begin to close the Medicare Part D drug coverage gap known as the “donut hole” for 63,000 senior citizens, said Richardson.

Under the “donut hole” system, Medicare beneficiaries were required to pay 25 percent of their medication after paying deductibles and premiums. Once the plan exceeded the $2,830 limit, they had to pay the full cost of their medication. After they finished spending more than $3,000, they qualified to only pay 5 percent of their costs.

“Senior citizens shouldn’t have to choose between food or medication,” said Richardson.

The congresswoman also endorsed the involvement of the health care workers union, SEIU 721, in negotiating contracts and organizing possible strikes.

“It’s so important that SEIU be at the bargaining table,” said Richardson after giving an anecdotal speech on her mother’s days as a Teamster labor unionist. “With the 30 million people that will be receiving health care, a lot of money is going to be made, and health care workers should receive reasonable wages and pensions.”

Following Richardson’s applauded speech, a nutrition councilor from SEIU 721, told the audience the union is fighting to save the Watts Health Care Corporation, an urgent health care center that extended its service hours after the closing of the King Drew Medical Center emergency room in 2007.

“The clinic may have to shut down its extended services and cut staff, which will increase lines and wait time,” said Luz Leon who has worked for the Watts Health Care Corporation for more than 18 years.

After the emergency room was shut down, the Watts Health Care Corporation, located less than two miles away from the King-Drew hospital, was allocated money from the Los Angeles Medical Preservation Fund. The bill provided $100 million a year to help neighboring clinics and hospitals expand their services. This permitted the Watts Health Care Corporation to extend its work hours and remain open on Saturdays.

The bill, however, did not contemplate funding past 2009-2010. The MLK-Drew “replacement hospital” will not open until December 2012 at the earliest, and this is projected to be a partial opening.

SEIU 721 is now trying to gain support for the SB 1409 bill that would prolong the additional funding.

Managers of the Watts Health Care Corporation are also in negotiations with SEIU 721, to bargain their employees’ contracts that expired in January. The managers wants to raise their employees’ monthly premiums for families of two or more, from $20 to more than $500, said Leticia Rodriquez, a nutrition assistant at the clinic.

“It’s scary. If they raise the premium, we are going to have to go without health insurance,” said Rodriquez, a mother of three children. “Our income is over the guideline for Medical.”

The problem with health care access in South Los Angeles, Rodriquez said, “is that people who have no income qualify for public services, but small businesses and companies can’t do that.”

SEIU is planning to hold another community forum April 6 to further discuss the needs of community clinics in South Los Angeles.

“Count me in the fight,” Richardson said.