ATWATER — The reality of nation's health care crisis has struck hard at the Bellevue Bowl, a bar and bowling alley that has been owned by the same family for 50 years.
Owner Bob Cardoza got word that the premium for the health insurance policy for his family and a few employees is jumping 75 percent. He made sure his congressman heard about it.
The congressman happens to be Bob's younger brother, Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat from Merced.
Cardoza and his fellow San Joaquin Valley Democrat, Rep. Jim Costa, of Fresno, are two of the hold-outs on historic health care legislation heading for a pivotal vote later this week.
They should be among the first to sign onto the bill, given the need for health care in their districts. But that they are mulling means they are torn or very savvy — or, more than likely, both.
"How we pay for it is of grave concern to me,"' Cardoza says. "My constituents are lukewarm because if it costs them a dime more, they're stretched."
Cardoza is seeking a medical school at UC Merced, while Costa wants more federal water for farmers in his district.
The brinksmanship will continue up to the vote. But it shouldn't. No part of the nation may need a health care overhaul more than this area, and both congressmen know that.
Cardoza, in particular, is steeped in the issue. His wife is a physician, and he has been following the issue since he was a Capitol Hill intern 30 years ago.
His district is one of the most distressed regions in the nation, from Stockton, a center of the home foreclosure crisis, to Modesto, Madera and Fresno.
Unemployment in his counties ranges from 16.6 to 21.7 percent. Nearly a quarter of Madera County residents have no health insurance. Teen birth rates are high and a Merced hospital recently closed its neonatal unit.
But make a few stops along Highway 99, and it becomes clear why the vote is tough for a San Joaquin Valley Democrat.
Danny Prather had insurance when he worked as a mechanic and later as a cable splicer.
Now he is MIA — not as in missing in action, though there are tragic similarities, but as in medically indigent adult. That means he has no health coverage, and must go to the place of last resort, the Health Service Agency clinic of Stanislaus County.
The 55-year-old has diabetes and depression and has had heart attacks and strokes. A friend lets him sleep on a couch; otherwise, he'd be at the homeless encampment down by the creek.
"I thought about killing myself," he said, standing outside the clinic across from a cemetery on Scenic Drive in Modesto.
Prather would benefit from health care reform. He would have better access to care, and his bills would be partly paid.
But, like many other potential beneficiaries, he shrugs. "It's just another way for politicians to control us," Prather says.
Down the road at the Bellevue Bowl, Ronald Roberts sips an O'Douls. The 74-year-old retired Air Force sergeant has a pace maker and survived prostate cancer. He doesn't worry about his own health insurance, but thinks politicians need to do what is best for the people.
"We're the richest country in the world and we don't take care of our own," Roberts says.
Then there is Bellevue owner Bob Cardoza. Business isn't exactly booming, and he worries about what he will do if he can't find a new policy, and must come up with the extra 75 percent.
"What I see really concerns me," he says.
As the vote nears, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is lining up votes. If Cardoza doesn't vote for the bill, he can kiss his coveted spot on the House Rules Committee good-bye — and maybe funding for the medical school as well.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is airing ads in his district, warning that the legislation will drive up prices and cost jobs.
But a congressman's job security is no excuse. The vote may be tough. But there may not be another opportunity like this again for a generation.
THE SACRAMENTO BEE