Imagining More Widely Available Health Care

In his State of the State speech on Tuesday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke about greatly expanding the availability of health insurance. A visit to a Los Angeles health clinic raises ideas about how the new policy could affect facilities that serve the state's poor residents.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

One more now from the governor. The health care plan Luke mentioned a moment ago, this would cover everyone who is currently uncovered. And here's what he had to say about his policy when introduced it earlier this week.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): Using a comprehensive approach, building on shared responsibility where everyone does their part, we will fix California's broken health care system and create a model that can be used for the rest of the nation.

CHADWICK: First, though, California has to make it work. And some critics already are saying it's just going to cost too much. But many who provide health services to the poor are supporting the governor.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited one Los Angeles health center to see why.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Inside the Watts Healthcare Corporation, a marble podium contains what looks like three oversized jewels. Closer inspection reveals they're really chunks of melted glass from buildings that burned during the 1965 Watts riot. The riots protested not only the pervasive police brutality of the time, but an appalling lack of vital services, including health care for the area's residents.

William Hobson is president and CEO of Watts Healthcare, a private non-profit. He was happy to hear Governor Schwarzenegger's intention to offer health insurance to all Californians, regardless of citizenship status.

Mr. WILLIAM HOBSON (President and CEO, Watts Healthcare): That's very good news to programs like ours. We provide services to anyone that presents at our program for health care. We don't have the wherewithal to do any type of citizenship verification. So what we would like to be able to do is to be able to provide services to all individuals.

BATES: Watts Healthcare served 22,000 people in 2005. That's the last year statistics are available. Patients came for family medicine, pediatric care, OB-GYN services, and for help fighting chronic diseases that are pervasive in poor communities like diabetes and hypertension. Bill Hobson says most of his patients come from the more than half dozen sprawling housing projects that ring the center.

Over three-quarters of the center's families fall below federal poverty guidelines, which means that even simple things like basic prescriptions for chronic treatable diseases can be unaffordable.

Mr. HOBSON: We try to do what we can to provide pharmaceuticals for patients with really low incomes. We can never do enough.

BATES: That's a challenge the governor will have to address in order to make health care reform meaningful for the people Watts Healthcare serves. And, says Bill Hobson, some of his patients already have insurance through their jobs, but using it is too expensive.

Mr. HOBSON: They may have a 1,000, $1,500, or $2,000 deductible per family member. So, in effect, at the incomes - if they work in minimum wage or near minimum wage - they're in effect uninsured, even though they have insurance.

BATES: Yet, another challenge for the governor and the state legislature, as they begin to construct a practical health care model for California that may eventually work for the rest of the country.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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