Q&A: Rep. Hernandez talks vaccine hesitancy and access to care for Arizona’s undocumented communities

Rep. Alma Hernandez has served Arizona’s third legislative district since 2019. She serves on the Federal Relations and House Health & Human Services committees.

In this Q&A, Rep. Hernandez discusses work she hopes to accomplish in the upcoming legislative session, youth behavioral health, and accessibility of care for undocumented individuals.

 

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Soraya Marashi: What are your health care-related priorities for the upcoming legislative session? Are you planning on pre-filing any bills?

Rep. Hernandez: “We’re going to be meeting with stakeholders in the next two to three weeks to start talking about what [bills] we actually see are feasible. I don’t have any draft legislation ready to go just yet … I’ve made a little bit more of an effort to only run legislation that I know will get a chance at a hearing or even get through committees and to the floor for a vote … because I am in the minority, so it does take a little extra work. 

I’m very passionate about public health … In the past, I’ve run legislation that would remove religious exemptions from vaccinations because that was a big problem that we were dealing with not only in Arizona, but around the country … It definitely opened up a can of worms for a lot of people that were very upset about it … so that’s one of the issues [with vaccines], is working on how to make things more accessible for all the community [and] make things available that are culturally competent as well, because I don’t think it’s enough to just have vaccines and availability. You have to be able to know what communities you’re working in. 

So, I’m not sure exactly what type of legislation around vaccines I’ll be working around … I’m trying to figure out what is more effective. I think there’s still a lot of vaccine hesitancy and a lot of people just don’t understand the importance of them and why they’re available, so I think something around [vaccine education] is a good step in the right direction … I will be working on something around vaccines.

We’re not anticipating an easy session … Because it’s election year, we have 11 new members … and with redistricting going on, I think it’s going to be one of those years where people try to push some really extreme legislation on both sides.”

SM: What health-related work have you been doing during the interim? What conversations have you been having?

Rep. Hernandez: “We did a health education forum in my district about two weeks ago around diabetes. Before that, I was doing a bunch of [one-on-ones] with our pharmacists. I work a lot with our local FQHCs … they serve a big population that I represent … I’ve gone on tours in my district talking to those that work in home health care services. I have a big, growing aging population in my district. My district has one of the highest rates of aging folks there … So, we’re dealing with a big issue with elderly who need services that are not receiving the services because there’s just not enough workforce. So that’s another issue we’re dealing with, and that’s one thing I’d like to work on in the Health Committee this upcoming session … What can we do as the legislature? Whether it’s increasing [fee-for-services] so that they can pay employees more so that it’s more appealing, or … offering training for programs … so that we have the workforce that we need.”

SM: In the past, you’ve worked on initiatives to make health care more affordable and accessible for underserved communities in Arizona. How do you plan to continue this work in the future?

Rep. Hernandez: “I think one of the big things is working with … the stakeholders and those who are actually providing these services and making sure that we’re all communicating and on the same page when it comes to this. I think for the most part, we have medical professionals who understand the burden and understand that it’s a lot of money sometimes to go in to get services when you’re not insured. 

So I think that’s one of the things that we’ll continue to do, is working with our stakeholders and our community leaders to ensure that we’re all having this conversation. And we’re not just coming in as legislators saying, ‘This is what needs to be done.’ Because I’m not an expert on it, and I don’t work directly with patients … I need to work with those on the ground that are doing the work.

I also am a big believer that regardless of your socioeconomic status, or your status as a citizen, you should be able to still access the same quality care that anybody gets. And that’s been a big thing in my life and in my district, where we have a population where we have many undocumented people and it doesn’t mean that they should be treated differently because of their status. If someone is ill and needs medical attention, they should be able to have that care … So that’s been one of the other things that I think would work on … [so that we’re not] causing a burden on our emergency services just to be able to provide the care because people know that’s the way to get the care if you’re not insured or are not documented.”

SM: Vaccine mandates have been a very controversial topic in Arizona. The Attorney General is filing suit against the Biden Administration to stop the health care worker vaccine mandate. What are your feelings about this?

Rep. Hernandez: “I’ve always been a big proponent of vaccines, making sure that we have herd immunity so that kids and individuals who are immunocompromised and cannot be vaccinated are taken care of in our community. So I have a serious problem with elected officials who think they know better than medical professionals and who think they know better than our health departments and want to tell us what to do. When they have no experience around health care or no experience around any of these topics. 

I disagreed with our governor when it came to mandates in Arizona because I know firsthand what happens. I studied public health and I did further training at Johns Hopkins … So it is a little frustrating when we have [elected officials] who are trying to make political statements out of things rather than trying to do what’s best for the community, and this goes on both sides. I don’t think that the Attorney General … trying to make a political statement is the right way to go about things.”

SM: Arizona has a growing behavioral health crisis, especially among young people. How do you think Arizona should address this?

Rep. Hernandez: “Mental health has always been a priority of mine. My best friend died by suicide almost 10 years ago. And for me, mental health services and making sure that we’re funding them properly is very important. Arizona is obviously very behind when it comes to this. Southern Arizona is now under the umbrella of Cenpatico … One of the big issues I’m seeing is the lack of medical professionals. 

We don’t have enough workforce in this. We don’t have enough psychiatrists, we don’t have enough behavioral health techs, and all the things we need to be able to make this a possibility to keep going and be sustainable over time. I think one of the big issues is that the people that do this work are not paid and compensated as they should be. And that’s a big problem.

I work really closely with the president of the Arizona Psychiatric Society Dr. Jasleen Chhatwal. We’re constantly in conversations because there’s no reason why teenagers, children or even adults should have to wait two to three months when they’re having a crisis to talk to someone or get help. By that point, it’s too late. And I think we need to do a better job of making sure that we’re funding these programs … So for me, it’s really frustrating when we have … elected officials who don’t understand the importance of these services. People don’t really understand until they know someone who’s affected.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.