As many as 6,800 immigrants in Ventura County could gain Medi-Cal coverage

Published on February 17th, 2016

Tom Kisken
February 15, 2016
Ventura County Star

Between 3,000 and 6,800 immigrants 18 and younger living illegally in Ventura County could receive full government-paid health insurance in May through a controversial California law.

Immigration and health care advocates of a law that opens the door to full Medi-Cal coverage are pushing families to begin enrolling now.

"What counties should be doing is going through active efforts to enroll these kids," said Daniel Zingale of The California Endowment, a foundation focused on improving access to care.

Ventura County and community groups focused on people living illegally in the country say efforts to reach and enroll them in an emergency Medi-Cal program are beginning. Once signed up, they would be automatically transferred to full benefits when the law takes effect.

An opponent of the new law passed by the Legislature last year contended it further fractures an already broken system.

"When is California going to wake up to that there are 39 million people in this state," said Joe Guzzardi, spokesman for a Santa Barbara group, Californians for Population Stabilization. "Bills like this are going to encourage more people to come."

Existing law allows immigrants living in the country illegally to enroll in restricted Medi-Cal, enabling them to receive emergency care. The new law makes those younger than 19 eligible for full benefits if they meet the same income standards that apply to other Medi-Cal members.

"The law would treat undocumented children in California like we treat other children," said Zingale, noting they would be eligible for preventive care not covered by emergency Medi-Cal benefits.

State officials say the earliest the new law will be enacted is May 1. Advocates say they've been told the state will need until mid-May before the program is launched.

But reaching immigrants isn't easy, said Arcenio Lopez, executive director of the advocacy group, Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, known as MICOP. People worry about deportation. Teenagers working in the fields worry about laws requiring them to be in school.

"There's a lot of fears," he said. "It takes time to educate and to be careful on how we share the information."

Officials for the California Department of Health Care Services estimate 170,000 children across the state will be newly eligible for Medi-Cal under the law. Officials of the Gold Coast Health Plan that provides Medi-Cal care in Ventura County say they've been told by the state to expect between 3,000 and 3,400 new members.

Estimates from The California Endowment are much higher. They project 300,000 people statewide could be covered by the new law, including 6,700 or more in Ventura County.

"The truth is no one knows precisely how many undocumented children are in the state," said Zingale.

Guzzardi said he thinks the Department of Health Care Services estimates are low, asserting the law also will draw more illegal immigration into California.

The Ventura County Taxpayers Association has not taken a position on the law. On Monday, association President Richard Thomson wondered about the law's financial impact. Analysts estimate the state's cost at $40 million in the current fiscal year and then about $132 million a year after implementation.

"My belief is that if you were to take a survey and ask what are the three things people are most concerned about, people will talk about things like jobs, they'll talk about traffic, they'll talk about education," Thomson said. " … I don't think anyone is going to have health care for undocumented children on that list."

But advocates say the care will save money in the long run by making children eligible for preventive care. In the current system, the emergency care that is covered is the most expensive, said Zingale.

"In the long term, there will be lower costs because you will have less kids getting sick," he said. "Half of the things that ail us as a society are preventable."

Fliers on the program are being handed out at La Hermandad Hank Lacayo Family and Youth Center in Oxnard. Still, a woman from El Salvador taking a night class knew nothing about it.

What she does know is four of her five kids were born in the United States and qualify for Medi-Cal. The fifth, a 17-year-old girl, was born outside of the country. Until the new law kicks in, she is not eligible for full coverage.

"It's not fair," she said through an interpreter.

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