Opinion: California’s Offering Health Care to More People Than Ever, But We Need to Let Them Know About It

Community health worker or promotora Iris Conde (middle) works with Sandra Himenez and Amelia Hernandez, both 72, at Banning Villa Apartments in Wilmington in 2017. A new law will give more people access to a community health worker. Photo: Jessica Portner

Every year the California Legislature passes hundreds of bills to help people across the state, from making investments in rent and utility relief to providing unprecedented funds to protect access to reproductive justice.  

In California’s quest to achieve a state that truly serves all, we have made great strides to open Medi-Cal, the state’s low or no-cost health insurance, to more people than ever — and to ensure that those already on Medi-Cal have robust access to essential and culturally supportive services.  

One of the primary reasons I ran for office was to represent those who are far too often left out of decisions that impact their health and wellbeing. In the small cities and rural communities comprising my district in rural Northern California, it became evident that we lack some of the most important health care resources. Unfortunately, the pandemic highlighted what we’ve been saying for years: health, educational, economic and geographical inequities are prominent in these communities. In health care specifically, the needs of small-town residents must be prioritized. 

To make matters more challenging, Medi-Cal enrollees represent some of the most disadvantaged and historically excluded people in our state. From families facing challenging economic times (including almost half of California’s children), to people who are undocumented, to those with limited English-proficiency. As of today, Medi-Cal serves 14 million Californians and counting.  

This year I have had the honor of working on AB 2697: Community Health Workers/Promotoras with the California Pan Ethnic Health Network, the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California and multiple community-based organizations. The bill would give all Medi-Cal members culturally and linguistically accessible information about how to work with a community health worker or promotora, which are now a service through their health benefits.

Community health workers and promotoras are stepping in more to help vulnerable populations navigate lifesaving services. They are trusted messengers and active in the communities they serve. They help Medi-Cal members enroll, access, navigate and utilize their health, mental health and oral health benefits.  

A generation ago, my own mother was a community health worker, or promotora, in thecity of WintersDuring her 10 years of service, she helped hundreds of people in our area from all backgrounds access preventative services and essential resources — services they needed to be healthy where they live, work and play.  

We used to talk about the numerous barriers her clients faced, many of which remain today. For example, many households did not and still do not have reliable internet access. And although my recent legislation aims to change that, how are these communities expected to navigate the enrollment process and access services or relief without internet access and guidance in the meantime? 

Without proactive outreach to Medi-Cal-eligible Californians, there is great risk that we will not reach the very people who most need services. It’s like having a ladder that is missing its middle steps. We must connect policy passage to implementation and execution in a well-coordinated manner to ensure the bill does what it’s meant to do: reduce inequities and improve lives.  

Governor Gavin Newsom and his Department of Health Care Services have an ambitious plan to hire 25,000 community health workers and promotoras statewide. Too much is at stake as we face growing workforce shortages and an expected increase in Medi-Cal members. Now is the time for the Legislature to do our part and make sure this new population of our health workforce has the necessary protections and accountability measures to be successful.  

California has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make the critical investments and set the staffing priorities needed for Medi-Cal to reach the least-served among us. With 25,000 health care workers fanning out across the state, now is the time to ensure we provide new Medi-Cal members with the guidance and funding they need to access services. My AB 2697 provides them with that direction. Californians shouldn’t have to wait another generation to get the care and services they need. 

Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry represents the 4th Assembly District, covering all or parts of Yolo, Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano and Colusa counties.

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