OPINION | Treat workers with dignity; Expand access to insurance for everyone in Washington

by Dr. Julian Perez

As a provider at Sea Mar, a public safety net health center, I see the reality of our health care system: When people don’t have a way to pay for health care, they delay getting care until it’s an emergency. To make matters worse, many life-saving treatments, such as organ transplants, are only available to patients with insurance.

There are currently 73,000 people in Washington who cannot get health insurance because of where they were born. We are a nation of immigrants working with immigrant labor. Immigrants build our houses, grow our food, and many of them have lived in the US most of their lives. But when they get sick, their immigrant status robs them of the dignity of accessing health insurance. This year, the Washington State Legislature could change that dire situation by expanding the criteria for accessing insurance.

I recently dealt with a tragic case that showed how a lack of access to insurance causes unnecessary pain and suffering. One of my patients was diagnosed with an aggressive but treatable form of leukemia. She had lived and worked in the US for 17 years and had three young children who were US citizens. Unfortunately, despite years of working in this country, my patient was undocumented and therefore ineligible for insurance at the time. Her oncology team was able to get her on medication to manage the disease, but full treatment required a bone marrow transplant, a service that hospitals won’t provide to uninsured or undocumented individuals.

Unable to afford a bone marrow transplant, my patient developed an allergy to the class of drugs that kept her alive, and she died. The experience of watching their mother die, actually because her immigration status prevented insurance and access to treatment, was traumatic for her family.

There is no nuance in this matter: we condemn our neighbors to death because they were born in another country.

Most undocumented workers are stuck in a tragic catch-22. The US desperately needs them to fill essential jobs in agriculture, construction and elderly care, but has no legal mechanism to give them permission to do the work they have been doing for years.

It is time to treat undocumented people as human beings. In my work with low-income patients, I have seen people’s pride when they can get insurance. Insurance means people can see a doctor regularly and not panic when they feel bad about losing their homes or families. Insurance gives people a sense of dignity and worth.

In addition, insurance saves our state from unnecessary emergency care costs. Working in an orchard or in a meatpacking plant is physical labor that takes its toll on people’s bodies. The insurance will allow people to have regular medical check-ups, get cancer screenings and detect kidney disease before surgery is needed.

This year, the Washington state legislature has the chance to fully fund a statewide coverage program for people who meet the income requirements for Medicaid but are ineligible because of their immigration status.

It’s time for our state to recognize the reality of our workforce and expand access to insurance coverage for everyone in Washington.

South Seattle Emerald is committed to maintaining a place for diverse perspectives within our community, with the understanding that diverse perspectives do not negate mutual respect among community members.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by contributors to this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Emerald or Emerald’s official policies.

Julian Perez is a family physician at Sea Mar Community Health Centers.

📸 Featured image by photobyphotoboy/Shutterstock.com.

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