As I read the news this mid-September morning, it’s looking increasingly likely that Congress will fail in their last-ditch effort to repeal Obamacare by the end of the month. This is very good news for the people of South L.A.
President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) has significantly increased the number of people who have access to health insurance. Before the ACA, too many of our friends and neighbors in South L.A. did not have access to care. And when people don’t have insurance and are experiencing a medical problem, they avoid getting the care they need—they even avoid the emergency room. Then by the time they do arrive at the emergency room, the problem has reached crisis levels.
Since Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital opened our doors two years ago, our emergency department has experienced more than double the volume of patients we expected, at 80,000 per year and growing. In both the emergency department and our 131-bed hospital, the patient experience and quality of care we provide rivals that of our city’s top hospitals. And many of our patients are those who didn’t have coverage for years, and suffered from inadequate health care and attention.
The most significant thing the ACA did to reverse that was expand Medicaid, the government program for lower-income populations. One-third of Californians, and half of kids in California, now have health care coverage through Medicaid, which is called Medi-Cal in California.
The ACA also created a market for people who didn’t have health care coverage through their employer to buy affordable insurance on exchanges. It removed lifetime caps on benefits, an important change for people who suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. It prohibits excluding people from insurance for pre-existing conditions, and it allows parents to keep children on their insurance policy until they are 26. All of these things made health care more accessible.
While it’s critical that we do all we can to ensure our elected officials fight to protect ACA, our attention at the hospital is also very focused on a complimentary public health effort: increasing the number of doctors in South L.A.
As those of you reading this likely know too well, we don’t have enough physicians to meet the needs of our community. We have a shortage of at least 1,200 doctors. And insurance doesn’t guarantee you access to care if there aren’t doctors available to see.
We are recruiting high quality physicians to fill this 1,200-doctor gap. At the hospital, we already have nearly 400 doctors who came to South L.A. from the best medical schools in the country, including Yale, Harvard and UCLA.
In the past six months, we started a new medical group in South L.A. as a way to attract and recruit physicians, and we have more work to do to create more clinics, urgent care and doctor’s offices with open doors to this community.
We’ve also established a program to encourage young people in our neighborhoods to pursue careers in health care. Our shortage of physicians is South L.A. is connected to the shortage of students of color going into medicine. We know that people tend to stay in the communities where they grew up, so we’re going to do all we can to grow the next generation of doctors among South L.A. kids. We call it the “You Can” initiative, encouraging youth from elementary through high school to choose paths to success in health care careers.
Think of a child or teenager in your family, and imagine her as one of the next doctors of South L.A. Wouldn’t you like her to know she can follow her dream?
I’ll be writing to you on these pages every month, and I’d like to hear from you about what you’d like to read about in future columns. Contact me at DrB@mlkch.org, and I look forward to talking with you more about how we are building a healthier South L.A. together.
Dr. Elaine Batchlor is the chief executive officer of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in Watts.