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Civil rights complaint filed against Medi-Cal

A group of Californians filed a civil rights complaint against Medi-Cal on Tuesday, alleging that failures in the program have made it so that Latinos are unable to access the healthcare they need.

Medi-Cal, the state's health plan for low-income Californians, provides free medical care to approximately 12.7 million people. But the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claims that because Medi-Cal administrators don't pay doctors enough to see patients, they "effectively deny the full benefits of the Medi-Cal program to more than seven million Latino enrollees." 

A spokesperson at the California Department of Health Care Services said the agency has neither received nor reviewed the complaint and would not comment on the action. 

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Medi-Cal, a joint federal-state program that was greatly expanded under Obamacare last year, has come under fire recently for not ensuring that patients are able to find doctors. Many complain that Medi-Cal's reimbursement rates, among the lowest in the nation, create a shortage of doctors willing to see Medi-Cal patients. 

Because Medi-Cal covers a population that is so heavily Latino, the complaint alleges, it fosters a "separate and unequal system of health care" that amounts to a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The complaint cites a recent study that found that cancer patients with Medi-Cal were generally less likely to have their cancers caught at early stages, receive recommended treatments and be alive five years after diagnosis, compared to those with other types of insurance.

The complaint also alleges violations of a federal law that requires Medicaid programs offer enough doctors for patients, as well as a section of the Affordable Care Act that prohibits discrimination in health programs that receive federal funding.

The complaint demands an increase in Medi-Cal-provided reimbursement rates and improved monitoring of the Medi-Cal program. 

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During the Great Recession, California officials decided to reduce physician reimbursement rates to save money. Legislators have proposed reversing those cuts, but they haven't yet been restored. Gov. Jerry Brown has been resistant to further increase spending on the massive program, which currently costs $91 billion a year.

Those filing the complaint are Latino Medi-Cal recipients, and their attorneys include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Health Law Program and the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center.

Saul Jimenez Perea, among those filing the complaint, suffers from cerebral palsy and severe seizures that often require hospitalization.

He has Medi-Cal and needs to a see a neurologist a few times a year. His mother, Analilia Jimenez Perea, was long unable to find a doctor who would see him and was told repeatedly that physicians didn't have any available appointments. 

Though Saul Jimenez Perea eventually was able to see a neurologist at the end of October, his mother said she doesn't think the process should be such a struggle.

"It's so frustrating," she said in a video statement. "It's very sad to plead for services." 

Follow @skarlamangla on Twitter for more California health news.

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