U.S. labor secretary marks healthcare reform anniversary in South LA

March 23, 2012, 3:41 p.m.

Two years after the landmark legislation was passed, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said the Affordable Care Act is about "making sure people are taken care of." (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis visited St. John's Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles on Friday to mark the two-year anniversary of the passing of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform.

Two years ago, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, one of Obama's landmark legislation efforts. Friday's event was organized by the Obama Campaign as part of an effort to learn how the president's healthcare legislation has affected constituents in California.

"Because of the Affordable Care Act, every single American, regardless of their circumstances, will have access to affordable, quality health insurance," said Solis at the press conference, speaking to a largely Latino audience. Solis was the first Latina to serve as a regular cabinet secretary. "Presidents have been trying to make that happen for 70 years. President Obama got it done."

South Los Angeles especially is characterized by a lack of access to specialty and primary care, according to Nina Vaccaro, the executive director of the Southside Coalition of Community Health Centers. She described the South L.A. medical landscape as a "barren wasteland" to OnCentral earlier in March. St. John's is a member clinic of the coalition, and provides healthcare to all of its patients, regardless of cost.

St. John's President and CEO Jim Mangia told those at the press conference that upon learning that St. John's was going to undergo a facilities renovation and expansion, some of his clinic's patients asked if they'd still be able to use them once the remodel and expansion was over. "I told them we're making them beautiful for you," said Mangia. "That's what health reform is all about.

"Health is freedom," he continued. "Health is freedom, and everyone has a fundamental right to human health. Make no mistake – health reform is changing the lives of tens of millions of Americans."

In the midst of that change, though, the role of community health clinics provides a safety net that is crucial to regions like South Los Angeles. One patient told those present that when her husband's blood sugar went up to 700, St. John's was the only place they were able to get the medicine he needed free of charge. Another said he'd sustained a workplace injury and had been "welcomed with open arms" at St. John's without having to go into his insurance or financial status. Many of the patients who spoke attested to the lack of healthcare they could readily access in South L.A..

Solis said low-income people and families are the most likely to benefit from the Affordable Care Act, and that the ultimate goal is to prevent people from falling through the cracks.

"Hopefully we'll be able to close that gap," she told OnCentral. "That's really what the president has been moving toward." As far as the unhealthy cycle of fast-food, lack of healthy eating options and lack of access to medical care that South L.A. seems to be caught in, Solis said that there needs to be a shift in responsibility.

"We don't have everybody paying their fair share, and you have insurance companies that have been able to increase their costs," she said. "We're trying to drive that down and bring a balance and make sure companies can't just up their premiums, and also make sure that everyone is paying into it that can afford to. We're one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet we have an abysmal record of making healthcare coverage available to everyone."

Addressing potential skepticism of southside Angelenos who are worried they won't be impacted by healthcare reform, Solis simply said, "They will."

"All of the research tells us that if we make investments in prevention now ... we can lower the cost so that it's not out of reach of a regular or low-income family," she said. "And those who are on the very low end, they will continue to get healthcare security. They will at a minimum be covered by the federal government."

Many of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act have unfolded since its passing two years ago, such as the prohibition of insurance companies from denying children for pre-existing conditions and prescription drug discounts. Per the timeline provided by the Obama Administration, all of the components of the legislation are expected to be in full effect by the first day of 2015. The legislation has been in headlines more than usual lately – next week, the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments by those who challenge the constitutionality of the legislation.

"We have a tough battle ahead," said Solis. "People's voices have to rise up and we have to remind our neighbors and brothers and sisters what this is about: It's about affordability and making sure people are taken care of."

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