The California state Senate Tuesday approved a first-of-its-kind bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to enroll in the state’s health insurance exchange. The measure, if enacted, would add to a growing number of rights allotted to undocumented immigrants in the state.
In addition to letting those who can afford insurance buy on the exchange, the bill would enroll eligible children less than 19 years of age in the Medi-Cal program, California’s Medicaid welfare program. A limited number of adult undocumented immigrants would be able to enroll, as well, if funding allowed.
“We are talking about our friends, we are talking about our neighbors and our families who are denied basic healthcare in the richest state of this union,” Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara said during the sometimes heated debate.
Should the bill pass through the California Assembly and get signed, the state would then need to ask for a waiver from the federal government to allow people to apply for plans on the California health exchange, regardless of legal status in the country.
There's no guarantee, however, the measure will make it into law. A similar bill stalled in the state Senate last year, and the governor has expressed some skepticism around the price tag of the legislation.
There are an estimated 2.4 million undocumented immigrants in California. Most are concentrated in the southern portion of the state. Often, Lara said, the fear of high medical costs keeps those in the state without permission from seeking medical care. The program is expected to cost $280 million to $740 million, depending on whether federal programs would allow immigrants to get temporary legal status in the country.
In the last several years, California has enacted a slew of relatively progressive laws when it comes to its undocumented immigrants, who also are able to get driver’s licenses. By the end of February, the state had issued 110,000 driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.
California is one of 18 states that allow undocumented immigrants to apply for in-state tuition. There are three states that specifically prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition rates: Arizona, Georgia and Indiana.
Nationwide, the debate over how to address the immigration problem has polarized Washington. Following an executive order from President Barack Obama late last year to extend deportation relief to young undocumented immigrants who meet a particular criteria, Republicans looked to block the action in a variety of ways. The discussion over how to reform the immigration system has made its way onto the presidential campaign trail as candidates begin jostling for position.