Lawsuit Alleges COVID-19’s Disparate Impact on Latinos in California Partially Driven by Disinvestment in Medi-Cal

Lawsuit Alleges COVID-19’s Disparate Impact on Latinos in California Partially Driven by Disinvestment in Medi-Cal

For Immediate Release:
August 18, 2021

Renée Saldaña
[email protected]

ALAMEDA, Calif. –  Long-term disinvestment and mismanagement of Medi-Cal helped set the stage for COVID-19’s devastating impact on Latinos, according to a supplemental complaint the Superior Court of California in Alameda County granted plaintiffs leave to file on August 16, 2021.

This is the latest development in a lawsuit originally brought against state officials in 2017 alleging that the Department of Health Care Services (DHCS)—which is responsible for administering Medi-Cal, the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income Californians—has discriminated against Medi-Cal’s disproportionately Latino participants by disinvesting from the program over the last 40 years as the Latino share of enrollment surged.

The supplemental complaint describes how poor access to medical care resulting from this disinvestment has left people with risk factors for COVID-19, including people with untreated and undertreated diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, at increased risk of negative outcomes. In addition, the disinvestment has hollowed out medical resources in low-income neighborhoods, leaving them ill equipped for the surge of COVID-19 patients, as well as more dependent for routine care on hospitals, which were frequent sources of COVID-19 transmission early in the pandemic. Because Latinos make up a disproportionately large percentage of the Medi-Cal population, this increased risk has disproportionately impacted Latinos and their healthcare providers.

“The enduring, long-term harm to California Latinos from disinvestment in Medi-Cal is substantial; the pandemic and its devastating effects on the Latino community are just one troubling illustration of those effects,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund).  “We run the risk of creating an entire cohort of Medi-Cal recipients and their children who have a deep distrust of government and of the healthcare system because of their experiences with an under-resourced program.”

Among those who struggled to receive adequate healthcare access during the pandemic is Maria Leon of Los Angeles. Maria, a Medi-Cal patient who has type 1 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, contracted COVID-19 in January but was unable to see or speak with her doctor for advice about taking her medications. She had COVID-19 symptoms for about three months and, likely as a result of her uncontrolled blood sugar, she started experiencing blurry vision and weakness in one of her legs.

“I felt so scared when I tested positive for COVID-19 but it was even more frightening when I couldn’t talk to a doctor about my medications,” said Maria Leon. “I eventually ran out of my blood sugar medication and my vision was so impaired that I was unable to work.”

The supplemental complaint also claims that the effects of long-term disinvestment from Medi-Cal have been compounded by contemporary policy decisions, resulting in increased vulnerability to COVID-19 for the state’s Latino population and the highest infection and death rates for any large demographic group in the state.

Counsel on the lawsuit include MALDEF, CREEC (the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center) and the law firm of Feinberg, Jackson, Worthman & Wasow LLP. They filed it on behalf of St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, the Healthcare Justice Division of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), and several individual Medi-Cal participants.

The order and supplemental complaint are available upon request.

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SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) is a healthcare justice union of more than 100,000 healthcare workers, patients, and healthcare activists united to ensure affordable, accessible, high-quality care for all Californians, provided by valued and respected healthcare workers. Learn more at

Founded in 1968, MALDEF is the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization.  Often described as the “law firm of the Latino community,” MALDEF promotes social change through advocacy, communications, community education, and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights, and political access. For more information on MALDEF, please visit: ​