Out of Prison — and Hungry

Aus Jarrar was released from an eleven-year prison sentence with $200. He's got an internship as a drug and alcohol counselor, but until he starts to earn a wage he's relying on charity food-- he doesn't qualify for food stamps.

Aus Jarrar was released from prison after an 11-year sentence with $200. He has an internship as a drug and alcohol counselor, but because he doesn’t qualify for food stamps, he is relying on charity food. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Editor’s note: For nearly two decades, people with drug-related felonies were banned for life from getting food stamps, but that’s all changing now. Starting April 15, thousands of former inmates will be eligible for food stamps and other public benefits.

Until then, how do you feed yourself when you get out of prison with no money and little help? As part of our health series Vital Signs, we hear from Aus Jarrar. He was recently released from prison after serving an 11-year sentence for bank robbery. Now, without food stamps, he’s one charity meal away from hunger. We caught up with him as he rushed around downtown Oakland looking for food.

By Aus Jarrar

Walking by that restaurant back there, I smelled some barbecue. Somebody’s really cooking. You know the funny thing? Since I got out, I’ve been really full maybe three times.

It was a shock to me the morning I woke up out here that my breakfast wasn’t ready. I was in prison for a total of 11 years. I took breakfast for granted.

I’m Palestinian. I’m not a citizen so I don’t qualify for food stamps.

The prison system, they give us $200 to leave with. I had no clothes, and I have no food. So I had to make the choice: do I want look professional, so I can get a job? Or do I want to eat? Continue reading

Cooking Class Shows Ex-Cons How to Shop and Cook on a Budget

Staff from Transitions Housing Clinic, a health center for former inmates, gathered in San Francisco to learn to cook on a budget with Chef Hollie Greene. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Staff from the Transitions Clinic, a nationwide network of health clinics for former inmates, gathered in San Francisco to learn to cook on a budget. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

The chef has thrown down the challenge. There are five teams, ten people each, that must make their own version of veggie chili. Juanita Alvarado stirs the secret ingredient into the pot for Team 1. They call themselves the SuperHots.

“Let’s let that caramelize,” she says, tapping the wooden spoon on the edge of the saucepan.

This simmering pot of fresh black beans, zucchini, and carrots is a far cry from what Alvarado ate when she was in prison. Late nights in the bunks, inmates would pool their goods from the commissary to make a prison concoction called The Spread.

“It’s a ramen noodle. It consists of pickle juice, tuna, Velveeta cheese. Sausages, hot chips, some hot sauce, pork rinds, mayonnaise,” she says.

Then they mixed it all together and cooked it – sort of. Continue reading

Newly Protected Immigrants Will Be Eligible for Medi-Cal, Advocates Say

President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy Thursday. ( Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy Thursday. ( Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

California undocumented immigrants who are eligible for deferred deportation under President Obama’s executive action are expected to be eligible for Medi-Cal, as long as they meet income guidelines, advocates said Thursday.

Medi-Cal is the state’s health insurance program for people who are low income.

Under federal law, these immigrants are not eligible for other benefits of the Affordable Care Act, including subsidies on the Covered California exchange. Continue reading

Kaiser Mental Health Clinicians Authorize Strike

Kaiser Permanente's newly opened medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)

Kaiser Permanente’s newly opened medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)

A union of 2,500 mental health clinicians at Kaiser have voted to authorize a strike, just one week after Kaiser’s nurses went on strike for two days.

In September, Kaiser agreed to pay a $4-million fine levied by state regulators. The Department of Managed Health Care found patients were subject to excessively long wait times to get a therapy appointment, or were shuttled into groups when they wanted individual therapy.

Psychiatric social worker Clement Papazian says various fixes, like after-hours appointments, still aren’t meeting demand. Continue reading

Covered California Patients Not Only Ones with Network Woes

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Charlie Spiegel said he was “thrilled” when he learned that the Department of Managed Health Care was taking action against two major insurers that sell policies on the Covered California marketplace. The companies, DMHC says, had violated state law by listing doctors on their online directories who were not part of their network.

Spiegel, of San Francisco, is not a Covered California policy-holder, but he’s having significant problems of his own with the individual policy he bought from Anthem Blue Cross earlier this year.

Here’s the background: Spiegel, 56, says he enjoys good health, but had been postponing various preventive tests due to cost. Before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, he had a high deductible plan. Continue reading

How Likely Are You to Have Heart Surgery? A C-Section? Depends Where You Live

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

“Location, location, location” may be a well-known maxim in real estate, but it applies in health care, too. Where you live matters in terms of what treatment you will receive for a given condition.

A new statewide survey published Tuesday found significant variation in the rate of 13 common elective procedures for several health conditions — including heart disease, childbirth and arthritis of the hip or knee. Treatments for these conditions are considered “elective” because deciding which treatment is best (or deciding on no treatment at all) can depend on someone’s preference.

It would be ideal if the patient was fully informed of all treatment options and made a decision based on his or her own preferences. But often it’s the doctor’s preferences that drive the decision. Continue reading

San Diego Group Has Fun ‘Impact’ on Young Adults with Mental Illness

Ellen Frudakis (left) and Johanna Baker co-founded Impact Young Adults ten years ago. (Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)

Ellen Frudakis (left) and Johanna Baker co-founded Impact Young Adults 10 years ago. (Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)

By Kenny Goldberg, KPBS

The National Institute of Mental Health says about one in five young adults has a diagnosable mental illness.

It’s not uncommon for young people with mental health issues to withdraw from others and to isolate themselves. That can make their situation worse.

A group in San Diego has made it their mission to encourage young adults with mental illness to get out of their shell, make friends and have a good time.

The group is operated by young people. Continue reading

Nurses to Resume Talks with Kaiser After Strike

Nurses carry signs as they strike outside of Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Francisco last week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Nurses carry signs as they strike outside of Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Francisco last week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Nurses are gearing up to return to the bargaining table with Kaiser, after walking off the job for a two-day strike.

Though the nurses emphasized the stalemate over more than 35 operational proposals in their call for the strike – over things like staffing levels and Ebola protections – several nurses on the picket lines expressed concerns about economic issues. Many of them wore pins that said “No TakeAways.”

Nurse Ama Jackson says they are afraid Kaiser will try to cut their pensions and health care benefits.

“They want to do takeaways, because they want to increase their profits,” she said, as hundreds of nurses marched up and down the sidewalk outside Kaiser’s hospital in Oakland last Tuesday. “But nurses are saying, ‘That’s not fair. That’s not fair to how hard we work.’” Continue reading

KQED’s #PriceCheck Project Shows Steep Variation in Prices Paid by Health Insurers

(Illustration: Andy Warner)

(Illustration: Andy Warner)

Since June, KQED has been crowdsourcing health care prices.

For starters, insurers paid from $128 to $694 for a screening mammogram.  

Why turn to crowdsourcing? Because health care prices are notoriously opaque. Negotiated rates between insurance companies and providers, both doctors and hospitals, are sealed tight, by contract. We know there’s variation, but comparing what one insurance company pays with another is virtually impossible.

So we asked you, the members of our community, to share what you paid.

Together with our collaborators KPCC in Los Angeles and ClearHealthCosts.com, a New York City startup dedicated to health cost transparency, we created a form to make it easy for people to share what they paid — and easy for consumers to see apples-to-apples comparisons of prices. Continue reading

Counties Expand Mental Health Services with New State Funds

Hope House, a residential treatment program in Martinez, helps people in a mental health crisis make the transition back to the community. (Elaine Korry/KQED)

Hope House, a residential treatment program in Martinez, helps people in a mental health crisis make the transition back to the community. (Elaine Korry/KQED)

By Elaine Korry

It’s lunchtime at Hope House, a new 16-bed residential facility in Martinez, east of San Francisco. People who live here are busy preparing lunch in what looks like a big country kitchen.

“We’ve designed it as much as possible to have a homelike atmosphere,” says program director Christopher Roach. “We want people to be thinking, this is a transition to the community.”

Many of the residents here have arrived directly from a hospital. Among them are young adults facing a psychotic break, chronically-ill homeless men or mothers battling mental illness and addiction. After an average two-weeks of intense counseling, Roach says they’ll leave with hope for recovery.

“What you’re able to accomplish in 14 days is huge if you know what you’re looking for,” he says. Continue reading