California’s Wall Between Immigrants and Health Care — Opinion, VoiceWaves Long Beach

May. 1, 2019 / By

Graphic by Benyamin Chao.

From calls for Medicare-for-All to failed border wall deals, the issues of health care and immigration continue to dominate today’s political landscape.

In January of this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced California’s next move on health care and immigration a promise to expand Medi-Cal coverage to Californians up to age 26, regardless of their immigration status. Left out of his plan, however, are approximately 2 million undocumented Californians over the age of 26, many who will remain uninsured and at-risk.

Gov. Newsom’s proposal, dubbed Health4All Young Adults, follows the Health4All Kids expansion (SB 75) passed in 2015, which allowed undocumented children in California under the age of 19 to enroll in Medi-Cal. 55,347 undocumented children currently benefit from this Medi-Cal expansion, the Health4All Kids website states.

For myself and other undocumented minors who qualified at the start, Health4All Kids was great news. It was our first opportunity to enroll in health coverage and access life-saving care. Four years since Health4All Kids passed, many of us have aged out of coverage. We now join our parents in the struggle to afford routine check-ups, specialty care, and pharmacy prescriptions.

California can do and afford better. Gov. Newsom’s incremental approach leaves out our parents who form the backbone of our community and have suffered the longest without ever receiving Medi-Cal coverage. As our state pursues the long term goal of Health4All, it is dire that we begin by including all Californians, regardless of immigration status or age. The goal is “Health For All,” not “Health For Some.”

Because our families could not afford thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket medical expenses, we grew up reserving hospital visits for emergencies only. Instead, we learned to rely on home remedies whenever we felt sick. All the while, our immigrant parents put their bodies and health on the line, working in hazardous environments such as construction, cleaning services, landscaping, and agriculture to provide for their children. By the time they finally seek an emergency room, it might be too late or too unaffordable to find them the care they need. And at the end of the day, California’s taxpayers might have to foot the enormous hospital bill due to our lack of insurance.

For working-class immigrant families, the “health care wall” affects various areas of our lives, including US citizens in mixed-status households

For Jamilet Ochoa, 23 and a 4th-year undergraduate student at Cal State Long Beach, her family’s access to health care should not be a matter of life or death. Covered individually by Medi-Cal, Ochoa says “a lot of us who are children of immigrants or undocumented parents will continue to be anxious about our elders’ health. That impacts us too.”

“Seeing our parents sick will continue to impact us in academics,” she adds.

Data from the Migration Policy Institute reveals that Gov. Newsom’s band-aid proposal will do little to close the vast health care gap facing undocumented immigrants well more than half of all California’s undocumented immigrants are above age 26. We can praise Gov. Newsom for diagnosing and treating the problem, but the size of the band-aid just doesn’t fit the size of the wound.

The UC Berkeley Labor Center estimates that roughly three-fifths of uninsured Californians1.8 million individuals in 2017 do not qualify for Medi-Cal due to their immigration status.

In Los Angeles County alone, 579,000 uninsured residents do not qualify for Medi-Cal for the same reason. This makes undocumented immigrants the largest single group of uninsured individuals in the state and the county.

While California grows in support of universal healthcare and immigrant rights, our governor can take bolder steps to protect the health and dignity of all our immigrant neighbors. According to poll data from the Public Policy Institute of California, 64% of voters in California already support his current proposal to extend Medi-Cal eligibility to undocumented young adults.

Legislators in Sacramento recognize this reality and want to expand Medi-Cal even further. On March 20, California’s Senate Health Committee discussed California Senate Bill 29, which would expand Medi-Cal eligibility to all Californians, regardless of immigration status or age. While the committee approved the bill on a 7-1 vote, its lone dissenter, State Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula) expressed his concerns over the usage of taxpayer money.

“This is going to be a very expensive law,” he said.

What opponents fail to mention when they deny immigrants access to social services is that undocumented immigrants in California pay their fair share of taxes. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants living in California pay $3 billion annually in combined state and local taxes— a figure dwarfing Gov. Newsom’s latest budget proposal of $260 million for Health4All Young Adults.

As California lawmakers consider expanding Medi-Cal to immigrants, lawmakers should not exclude our parents and elders from the conversation. Before the Medi-Cal budget is finalized in June, we have the opportunity to recognize the basic human needs of all Californians. Only when we break down the walls between immigrants and health care will we have a healthy California.

Benyamin Chao

Benyamin is a Long Beach native, growing up in North Long Beach. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 2017 and is passionate about telling stories. In his free time, you can find Benyamin singing karaoke or researching local history.