SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Children and teens brought illegally to the United States gained access to publicly funded health care Monday as California began allowing young people to sign up for the state’s health care program for the poor without regard to their immigration status.
State officials expect as many as 185,000 children under age 19 to join Medi-Cal in the first year - about three-quarters of the estimated 250,000 eligible youth. About 121,000 will be automatically transferred from a limited version of the program that provides only emergency care, giving them the full range of medical, dental, vision and mental health coverage available for little or no cost with full-scope coverage.
In a rally outside the state Capitol, health care and immigrant rights advocates celebrating the expansion turned their attention to their next goals. They want Medi-Cal - the state’s version of Medicaid - to cover income-eligible adults who migrated illegally and are pushing to allow those who make too much money to buy private coverage through the state’s insurance exchange, Covered California.
“While Congress remains gridlocked with stereotypes and hateful rhetoric, California remains as a hopeful beacon that tells people, ‘Immigrants, you matter. Immigrants, you contribute to our economy. Immigrants, you are people that deserve to have health care,’” said Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who wrote the legislation authorizing the expanded coverage.
Critics question why California lawmakers are spending time and money to help people who immigrated illegally when there are American citizens in need.
“This acts as a magnet to the world - bring your children, bring your families to California illegally and you will get free health care,” said Robin Hvidston, executive director of the activist group We the People Rising.
In his revised budget proposal published last week, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown included $188.2 million to cover the children and teens expected to get full-scope Medi-Cal coverage. While the federal government pays about half the cost of providing Medi-Cal benefits to citizens and legal immigrants, the state is covering the entire price tag for those who immigrated illegally.
More than 13 million Californians are enrolled in Medi-Cal, about a third of the state’s population. The total state share of Medi-Cal funding is about $17.7 billion
Joe Mangia, president and CEO of St. John’s Well Child & Family Center in Los Angeles, said the center has about 2,500 kids who will be eligible for the expanded coverage, and expects about 1,000 already have emergency Medi-Cal.
He said they’ve been reaching out to families to tell them about the option and set up appointments starting on Monday for people to come in and enroll. Health promoters have also gone out into the community to tell people about the program, he said.
Until now, St. John’s has treated the kids but now they’ll get much better and expanded care.
“Before, if there was a specialty need, we’d refer to the county, maybe they’d get seen in six to nine months,” he said.
State officials have been working to make the transition smooth and will be watching for any implementation problems they need to address, Department of Health Care Services Director Jennifer Kent said in a statement last week.
“We’re delighted at this chance to expand comprehensive health coverage to reach thousands more California children,” Kent said.
Associated Press writer Amy Taxin contributed.
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