Health Equity

In 2001, Santos Campos was diagnosed with a hernia. Soon after, the Mexican immigrant and current Los Angeles resident, a middle-aged man who has worked in construction for three decades, had a personal emergency which resulted in him losing his job–and his health insurance. Tens of millions of Americans are in a similar position, which is why Greenlining’s Health Equity program is so important.

Campos continued to work as an independent contractor specializing in remodeling houses, yet his ailment impacted his ability to perform physically-demanding labor and maintain clients.

“If I went to the customer’s house and I had to be pushing my hernia every time I said something or coughed, and I kept pushing it, it’s kind of embarrassing for me,” he explains. “So, it made me feel uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure it did for them too.”

Campos, a charismatic, handsome man with an instantly engaging personality, wound up losing several customers due to his health problems. Meanwhile, his hernia continued to grow, eventually becoming the size of a softball. For 11 long years, Campos suffered without health insurance. He had enjoyed staying in shape, lifting weights, and swimming, but he stopped exercising because of his hernia. “I would save my energy and strength just for work. Keep feeding my family and keep it together,” he says, adding that he had no other health problems. Besides affecting his remodeling work, the ailment also took a toll on his emotional state; he worried about his future and his ability to provide for his family.

“Back in Shape”

One day, Campos was listening to a Spanish-language radio station when he heard about free health care services being provided by Healthy Way LA, a countywide program. Campos enrolled in the program through the Korean Health Education Information & Research (KHEIR) Center, a Greenlining Coalition member that is a primary provider of critical in-language health care and human services support to the residents of metro Los Angeles and nearby communities.

After coming to the clinic, he says, “they got me going through other hospitals to get the surgeries I needed. It has been over a year and now I’m back in shape and feeling 100 percent.” Post-procedure, he says, “it’s like, I don’t even remember having a hernia, or worry about lifting anything.”

In addition to arranging his hernia surgery and helping guide him through the process, Campos says KHEIR has maintained contact and continued to monitor his progress with blood tests and physical examinations. “It’s been great. I’m thankful that such programs exist for us,” he says.

Not having to worry about nagging health issues “puts you at ease, it makes me want to keep going… it gives me confidence. I’m not afraid to do tile or do drywall,” Campos adds. He notes that he is careful not to overextend himself: “I use back braces, knee pads, safety equipment, but I know that if anything happens, I can count on these guys.”

Campos is one of 10,000 patients treated annually at KHEIR, located in the heart of LA’s Koreatown. The center’s patient demographics include a large Korean base of 33 percent, with the rest split almost equally between blacks, Latinos and whites.

A Neighborhood Institution

Founded in 1986, KHEIR offers a wide range of services, including adult day care; health and social services for elders; disability assessments for General Relief patients; primary and preventative care; specialty services with partner hospitals (such as the one which provided Campos’ hernia surgery at no cost); blood work, immunizations and cancer screenings; low-cost and no-cost mammograms and x-rays; mental health support and women’s issues; and some services not typically associated with health care clinics, such as food stamp enrollment, computer literacy classes, transportation assistance, and caregiver and job training.

Clinics like KHEIR will continue to play a vital role as health care reform takes effect: While millions of uninsured Americans will gain coverage, a significant number will remain uninsured. Greenlining is pushing to make sure that the new insurance options reach as many people as possible, while a strong safety net of public programs and community clinics is there to take care of the rest.

As Project Manager Kirby Van Amburgh relates, KHEIR has become a “neighborhood institution” which is “trying to be a one-stop shop” for health care as well as community services. “A lot of people are surprised adult Healthy Way LA services are free – not just for kids,” she says.

Because of KHEIR’s expertise in cultural competency with non-English-speaking populations, patients come not only from the Koreatown area, but from as far away as Torrance, a suburb located more than 20 miles away from central LA.

One of the most common issues inherent in cultural competency, Van Amburgh says, is the fear of filling out necessary paperwork – a particular concern for undocumented people and non-English-speaking residents. That concern, she says, can be addressed by “having someone explain documents to you in your own language.” Other concerns include religious issues, particularly around birth control. The center is careful to “always be respectful” and understands that “some people don’t want birth control,” she says. Creating an identity for KHEIR as a community center helps address the fact that it’s harder to get men in particular to go to the doctor, and makes it easier for people in general to access the health care services being offered.

Something All People Should Have

Although the LA region has a large number of doctors and private clinics, many do not accept Medi-Cal. Eighty-three percent  of KHEIR’s patients have a household income of less than $35,000 a year for a family of four.  Eighty-nine percent are covered by no-cost programs for low-income individuals (such as Medi-Cal and Healthy Way LA) and eleven percent have no coverage at all, free or private.  Even as insurance becomes more available, programs like Healthy Way LA and centers like KHEIR will continue to play a vital role, and Greenlining will continue to advocate for access to care for all underserved communities.

Though the Affordable Care Act (sometimes called “Obamacare”)—and its mandate to provide affordable health care for all—has been the subject of much rhetorical debate and political proselytizing—Campos’ personal experience is evidence that it fills a huge void, creating a safety net which in turn helps stabilize families and entire communities.

Affordable healthcare, Campos says, is “something that I think all people should have access to. Medical, even mental health, I think we all need access to it, one way or another. And if it’s accessible to those that are not so rich, not so privileged, I think it helps the community. Keeps the families healthy, other than that, I know there’s a need everywhere in every community for programs that would help families, especially families that are low-income, that are struggling economically, regardless of who they are, if this program succeeds, I think we’ll make it. This is just one of the reasons why I like living in this big old country.”