Health Coverage Expanded to Undocumented Immigrants in 35 California Counties

A state panel expanded health care coverage Thursday for undocumented immigrants and other low-income residents of 35 rural counties, including Yolo and El Dorado counties in the Sacramento region.

The move by the County Medical Services Program board promises to fill in health access gaps for people who don’t qualify for low-income health coverage through Medi-Cal or for private insurance under the state’s health exchange, Covered California. Many of those people are undocumented immigrant adults who have only had access to emergency care.

“You’ve made a very important step forward for access to health care for thousands of Californians,” Anthony Wright, head of the patient advocacy group Health Access California, told the board.

Meeting in a ballroom at a Sacramento hotel, the eight board members voted unanimously on the undocumented immigrant addition to the program, which generally provides last-resort indigent health care in many of the state’s least populated counties.

The program’s expansion would add several doctor visits and about $1,000 of prescription drugs to the list of services available to undocumented immigrants and to legal residents who meet eligibility criteria but don’t qualify for other aid programs.

The board approved a half dozen other program expansions, including raising the income eligibility limit for both legal and illegal residents to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which is less than $12,000 for an individual.

All told, the changes are expected to cost $6 million to $9 million over the next two fiscal years and may start as early as 2016, program officials said.

They said it’s unclear how many undocumented immigrants might sign up for health care, but program consultant Lee Kemper said the figure is “probably in the low thousands.”

The Public Policy Institute of California think tank estimates the state is home to about 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, with more than half that population living in Los Angeles, Orange County, the Bay Area and other large urban areas.

The medical services program was created in the early 1980s so that counties that had fewer than 300,000 residents at the time could pool their resources to provide indigent health services. Some of those counties, such as Sonoma County, have grown larger over the years, but many are still sparsely populated in Northern California and the Central Valley.

The County Medical Services Program’s budget was strained in the past, but in recent years the expansion of Medi-Cal and the creation of the state’s health exchange under the Affordable Care Act have dramatically reduced the population it serves, leaving it with about $225 million in reserves.

The board’s actions Thursday came in the context of a larger statewide move to provide health services to undocumented immigrants.

Earlier this month, Sacramento County supervisors restored basic health care services for undocumented immigrants ages 19 to 64 who qualify as low-income. The county supervisors had voted in 2009 to cut the services during tough economic times.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a state budget bill that expands low-income state Medi-Cal coverage to all income-eligible children regardless of immigration status starting in May 2016.

Yolo County, a prime farming area, was one of a handful of counties that also cut health care services for undocumented immigrants in 2009. The county later joined the County Medical Services Program, meaning undocumented health care will be restored.

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