You might see a group of Visión y Compromiso "promotores" tabling at local mercados throughout Humboldt County — they're on a mission to help as many Latinx residents as possible obtain health insurance and access healthcare services.
Visión y Compromiso Humboldt is a new chapter of the nonprofit Southern California based organizational coalition of "promotores," or community health worker liaisons, aimed at supporting and creating healthier Latinx communities.
"The thing that we're doing that no one else is doing is actually meeting people where they are," says Visión y Compromiso promotor Ariel Fishkin. "We spend a lot of time outside of markets in Eureka and Fortuna and, for people who just wouldn't call for whatever reason, we're there to answer any question. They don't have to go out of their way to find this information and, definitely, the education helps."
In an interview with the Journal, Visión y Compromiso Humboldt Coordinator Ruben Ramirez says a California Department of Health Care Services study found that approximately 13,000 qualified Humboldt County residents weren't covered by Medi-Cal. So, the department partnered with California Coverage and Health Initiatives, which then hired Visión y Compromiso to help Humboldt County's Latinx residents apply for Medi-Cal.
According to preliminary data from the California Department of Health Care Services, a total of 56,987 Humboldt County residents were eligible for Medi-Cal as of December, including 7,652 Latinx and Hispanic residents.
One of the biggest problems facing Latinx communities when applying for programs like Medi-Cal is the language barrier, Ramirez says, adding that even though there are translated forms, the bureaucratic language can be confusing and intimidating.
"The majority of people who qualify for Medi-Cal have the problem of being scared of applying," Ramirez says. "It's a little complicated and so they have that barrier of, 'OK, what do I write here? What don't I write?,' and we guide them through the entire process and help them figure those things out."
But it's not just help with application assistance. Promotores also take it a step further, following up with their clients on their application status, whether or not they need to provide additional documents for coverage, teaching them about the type of coverage they have and ensuring they're actually using their benefits and receiving the care they need.
"We follow our clients throughout the entire process, and after they've been approved we help them find providers and check in to see if they want to make a doctor's appointment or want to be seen," Ramirez says.
Following through with clients is one of the most comforting and reassuring things about Visión y Compromiso, Fishkin says, especially for those who aren't used to navigating bureaucratic systems and trying to apply for benefits.
Fishkin also emphasized the importance of Visión y Compromiso's education efforts to make sure people understand the types of coverage and local assistance programs they might qualify for. Local promotores speak with local providers to learn the types of assistance programs or services they offer that aren't widely known, so they can help relay that information to the broader community.
"County to county in California, we're finding different programs and, usually, specific hospitals have different programs that can help people who can't afford their medical bills," Fishkin says. "Specifically in Humboldt, we know that Open Door clinics are applying to be a part of a program called Connect to Care, which would allow people with emergency Medi-Cal, which is mostly undocumented folks over the age of 26, to get more services ... We know that because we're talking to the clinics."
Visión y Compromiso is also making sure Humboldt's undocumented residents know they can get some degree of coverage. Currently, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for full Medi-Cal benefits but can receive limited coverage for things like emergency and pregnancy related services.
For Julio Torres, being a promotor for Visión y Compromiso and helping people navigate complex systems is like a calling.
"For me, I'm always putting myself in places where I'm trying to help people," he says. "It kind of came natural to take this job on with more of a specific goal in mind to help people access healthcare because I know personally, and from other people's experiences, too, when we're not well physically or mentally, that kind of affects a lot of other parts of our lives. And it's almost like a holistic thing for me. I'm trying to empower people through self-care because I think having medical coverage to take care of ourselves is really important. ... We all deserve these basic rights."
Since the beginning of their outreach in November through the end of the year, they've helped 35 people apply for Medi-Cal, Ramirez says, adding that they are helping with applications every day they're outreaching.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the need for medical coverage in the Latinx and Hispanic communities, as nationally the rates of COVID-19 cases in Latinx/Hispanic people are 1.7 times higher than for white and non-Hispanic people, while hospitalization rates are 4.1 times higher and deaths 2.8 times higher.
Locally, 27 percent of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases have been Latinx and Hispanic people, while they make up 12 percent of Humboldt County's population.
"The pandemic definitely secured the need to support the community and, in Humboldt County, Hispanic and Latino people are the ones who often have less services and support, and we also have a population that doesn't speak the language, "Ramirez says. "That language barrier is huge and to have this team that speaks and understands this language is a positive manner in which we can help. Having this team in this community, where people are scared or often don't know where to go for help, is necessary and truly beneficial."
Visión y Compromiso Humboldt is open to helping anyone with Medi-Cal application assistance. If you need help or have any questions, call Fishkin at (530) 523-3881 or Torres at (530) 523-3881.
Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.
The Community Voices Coalition is a project funded by Humboldt Area Foundation and Wild Rivers Community Foundation to support local journalism. This story was produced by the North Coast Journal newsroom with full editorial independence and control.