Coachella Valley residents in poorer health

In a comparison of research [PDF] released last week, the Palm Desert-based Health Assessment Resource Center found that residents in the Coachella Valley had higher rates of diabetes, binge drinking and smoking than people living in other parts of the state and country. They also were more likely than other Californians to report being in only fair or poor health by more than 9 percentage points.

The center began collecting detailed health and socioeconomic data for eastern Riverside County in 2007 because despite concerns about poor health in the region, such localized information did not previously exist. In its most recent report [PDF], issued earlier this year, the center found that about 20 percent of eastern Riverside County residents had not seen a doctor in the past year. It also found that Latinos make up 23 percent of the population, and they are three times more likely than whites to be uninsured.

When compared with similar data collected by the United Health Foundation's recently released annual America's Health Rankings and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Assessment Resource Center reported that 17.4 percent of Coachella Valley residents were in fair and poor health, more than twice the statewide average of 8.1 percent.

Health professionals said they are not surprised by the center's findings, especially considering the number of low-income residents living in the proliferation of mobile home parks that dot the east Coachella Valley, an area made up primarily of rural, unincorporated towns.

"It is no surprise that Coachella's population is less healthy," Eduardo Guevara, an east Coachella Valley resident who works for a local health organization, wrote in an e-mail. "Historically, this area has received less representation from government at all levels. The Coachella Valley is plagued with contaminated water, unhealthy air quality, unregulated hazardous waste dumps and food deserts. This study is only a snapshot of the communities' health conditions; the reality is far more alarming."

Guevara, who works for a health education organization called Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto, said he sees the effects of these statistics firsthand.

"My family is a mirror image of thousands of families living in Coachella Valley," he wrote. "My mother is in remission from cancer, my sister is fighting life-threatening kidney disease, my wife is fighting severe asthma, and I am in treatment for diabetes. Dodging death is our daily ritual."

Local physicians also said the study resonates with what they see in their daily practice.

"We are getting more and more severely ill patients and more patients in the emergency department," said Raul Ruiz, an emergency room doctor and founder of the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative. "I'm also seeing it in the community where I give free care throughout the Coachella Valley in poor neighborhoods, where a lot of patients find it difficult to maintain their health because they are having difficulty accessing health education, prevention programs and health care."

The eastern Coachella Valley, in particular, historically has had a severe physician shortage. A 2010 report by the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative found that there was one doctor for every 8,407 residents there. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends a ratio of one doctor for every 2,000 people.

"The worse the health care access crisis gets, the worse our health outcomes will be," Ruiz said.

The center's 2010 research also found that health care access for Coachella Valley residents has been affected by the economic downturn.

"The significant changes between 2007 and 2010 was health care insurance for adults," said Eileen Packer, the Health Assessment Resource Center's executive director. "The other was in the socioeconomic demographics. There are more people out of work, less people working full time, more people needing food assistance and more people who are uninsured."

According to the center's study, more than 50 percent of Coachella Valley adults are uninsured; 38 percent of those without health care coverage were Latino.

This means that many low-income residents must rely on a shrinking safety net, Guevara said.

"The majority of people I work with reside in the unincorporated area of the eastern Coachella Valley," he said. "The medical services are limited to federally qualified clinics, such as Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, that have seen dramatic cuts in federal funding, impairing their ability to provide more extensive medical services to the underserved and uninsured populations."

A lack of health care coverage is, in fact, an issue for Latinos statewide, according to a study released this month by the California HealthCare Foundation. Of the 6.9 million Californians without health insurance – the largest number of any state - about 60 percent are Latino.

"A lot of people get their coverage through their employers, and unfortunately, a lot of work that Latinos are engaged in – blue-collar and physical jobs – a lot of those employers are not providing insurance, and they can't afford to purchase private insurance," said Chad Silva, a policy analyst with the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California.

Environmental and social factors also are at play. "We can't discuss health and wellness without discussing the social determinants of health and wellness," said Ruiz, the emergency room doctor.

Last year, for example, one of Ruiz's elderly diabetic patients was living in a mobile home park that had a monthlong power outage at a time when temperatures reached 115 degrees. The situation turned a chronic illness into a medical crisis, he said. "Because of the exposure to heat and dehydration, he went into renal failure," Ruiz said. He died from medical complications related to his diabetes eight months later.

These environmental issues are at the heart of Coachella Valley's poor health, advocates say.

"We can keep treating disease and things like diabetes and look for new cures to different forms of cancer and new medications that make asthma attacks less severe, but the issue is that people are getting sick for a reason, and there are environmental contributors to that, such as open space, such as how often communities of color are living adjacent to really intense sources of pollution," Silva said.

Guevara, the eastern Coachella resident, agrees that his and his family members' health is tied to what is happening in the rest of his community, which he calls "the gray area of California."

"In order to improve the health of Coachella residents, it will take political will, investment in infrastructure, transportation and the creation of good jobs that provide medical benefits," he said. "As long as the Coachella Valley continues to be treated as California's dumping ground, our health will continue to decline. We have to break that cycle."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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