L.A. program offers healthcare for illegal restaurant workers


A restaurant workers’ group and a Los Angeles community clinic have launched a unique cooperative to provide health coverage to a group of people excluded from federal healthcare reform — illegal immigrants.

The pilot program, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, offers preventive and primary care to low-wage, uninsured workers in the restaurant industry. Legal immigrants and other restaurant workers who don’t meet the criteria or cannot afford coverage under the healthcare law are also eligible.

About 75,000 restaurant workers in Los Angeles don’t have access to insurance because of their immigration status, Mariana Huerta of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, or ROC-LA, said Wednesday.

“Restaurant workers are preparing, serving and cooking our food,” Huerta said. “So many of these workers reported that they go to work sick. That is a public health hazard for consumers.”

Under the program, called ROC-MD, uninsured workers pay $25 a month so they can go to one of several clinics run by St. John’s Well Child and Family Center for physicals, basic dental care and treatment for common illnesses. The program started last fall, but organizers formally announced it Wednesday and are now recruiting more participants.

The coverage doesn’t replace traditional health insurance but helps ensure that workers have a place to go for preventive care so they don’t end up in emergency rooms, said Joseph Villela, senior policy advocate with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

The new program makes fiscal sense, said David Hayes-Bautista, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture. “Emergency rooms are the providers of last resort, and they are very expensive,” he said. “If people can be provided alternatives, that saves everyone money.”

The restaurant workers are coming to St. John’s with burns, cuts and other workplace injuries, said Jim Mangia, the clinic’s president and chief executive.

Mangia said many of the workers’ children are covered by Medi-Cal, which helps offset the cost of care for the adults. In addition, the new program received some grant money to get started, he said.

Ilecara Velez, an undocumented immigrant, earns $8 an hour at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles and said she has a family history of diabetes. Even though she was worried about her health, Velez, 21, said she couldn’t afford to see a doctor.

So when she heard about the cooperative, she joined right away. Velez immediately saw a doctor, who, she said, gave her good news: She didn’t have diabetes.