Story by Rebecca Medel. Photo via Flickr
Unlike a lot of people her age, Karen Villasenor knows how important medical coverage is. That’s because growing up undocumented in Long Beach meant not always being able to see a doctor when she was ill.
“It was hard,” recalled the 25-year-old. “I remember not being able to go to the doctor when I was sick because we couldn’t afford it. Instead some lady would come to do a ‘remedio’” that usually involved some variety of homemade remedies.
But times are changing in California and today’s undocumented youth may no longer have to worry about paying out of pocket for doctor visits or delaying care.
Senate Bill 4, the Health for All Kids Act, was signed in October of last year and is expected to launch May 15. Authored by Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), SB4 allows undocumented youth under the age of 19 who are income eligible to apply for medical coverage under Medi-Cal, California’s insurance program for low-income and disabled residents.
The state joins Massachusetts, New York, Washington and Washington D.C. in providing affordable health insurance to undocumented children.
SB4 will transition existing health programs for immigrant children— the Healthy Kids Program, Emergency Medi-Cal and the Kaiser Child Health Plan — into full scope Medi-Cal, which offers more comprehensive services, including vaccines, physicals, specialist visits, and dental and vision benefits while covering a wide range of medications.
It is estimated that 170,000 undocumented children will benefit, according to Lara’s office.
California is home to the nation’s largest undocumented population, totaling about 2.67 million according to figures from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). A 2012 report by the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California (USC) found that as many as 62 percent of all undocumented immigrants nationwide are uninsured.
In Central West Long Beach, where Villasenor grew up, the concentration of undocumented immigrants – estimated to be 13 percent of the area’s 87,000 residents – is higher than anywhere else in LA County.
In preparation for the start of SB4 next month, the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition (LBIRC) is partnering with The Children’s Clinic and the City of Long Beach’s Health and Human Services to enroll community members.
But it won’t be easy. LBIRC’s clients have said they often forego healthcare and other services out of fears that applying for coverage might reveal their status or hinder obtaining a green card. Language barriers are also cited as another reason.
Long Beach Health and Human Services Program Coordinator Anthony Ly says undocumented immigrants should not be afraid to apply for coverage. His office has hosted numerous enrollment workshops in recent weeks to inform residents of available programs.
Still, as advocates celebrate SB4 they also point to the thousands of undocumented immigrants who exceed the age limit and will therefore remain uninsured.
Another bill, SB10, would allow undocumented adults to purchase private health plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). California would be the first such state to do so if the bill passes.
An article in the Los Angeles Times suggests SB10 stands a good chance of making it through. The bill wouldn’t cost additional spending; beneficiaries wouldn’t receive subsidies and so would have to pay the full price of insurance.
The Health for All Kids Act increased the state’s Medi-Cal allocation by $40 million in its first year and will cost an additional $132 million for each following year, according to Lara’s office.
“Increasing access to health care coverage remains a top priority of mine,” said Lara in a statement. “We secured Health for All Kids in California, regardless of immigration status starting in May. I am committed to continuing the fight to close the access gap with SB10.”
“SB-4 is a victory for our communities, but it is not the end goal,” said LBIRC community organizer Jonathan Solorzano. “As an immigrant rights organization, we believe everybody in our communities should have access to healthcare. We will continue our collaborative efforts with statewide organizations to push for the approval of this bill.”