Newly Protected Immigrants Will Be Eligible for Medi-Cal, Advocates Say

President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy Thursday. ( Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy Thursday. ( Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

California undocumented immigrants who are eligible for deferred deportation under President Obama's executive action are expected to be eligible for Medi-Cal, as long as they meet income guidelines, advocates said Thursday.

Medi-Cal is the state's health insurance program for people who are low income.

Under federal law, these immigrants are not eligible for other benefits of the Affordable Care Act, including subsidies on the Covered California exchange.

Gabrielle Lessard is a health policy attorney with the Los Angeles office of the National Immigration Law Center. "They’ll be in the same situation as DACA," she said, in reference to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Obama's 2012 policy for young undocumented immigrants who had come to the United States as children.

While most states do not extend Medicaid benefits to DACA immigrants, California does.

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"'Deferred action' means those individuals who are approved are  considered lawfully present," said Ronald Coleman, government affairs manager for the California Immigrant Policy Center. "California has historically covered broad populations of immigrants who reside in the state."

Both Lessard and Coleman insisted no legislative action was necessary, that existing state law extends Medi-Cal benefits to immigrants who qualify under Obama's action.

Coleman said the immigrants benefitting from Obama's action will be "work eligible and, as lawfully present immigrants, they will be eligible for the state Medi-Cal program ... if they are income eligible."

But Tony Cava, spokesman for the state's Department of Health Care Services said that since the agency has not received any details about the president's action, "we are unable to assess any impact it might have on Medi-Cal services."

Cava added that federal Medicaid law requires all states to provide emergency services to undocumented people and that any information that undocumented individuals provide to determine whether they qualify for Medi-Cal may not be used "for any type of civil immigration enforcement action under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement law."

Even though that information is not supposed to be used, the fear lingers. There are reports of lawfully-present immigrants hesitant to sign up for health insurance, if they must answer questions about undocumented family members. They worry about exposing undocumented relatives to enforcement scrutiny.

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Coleman estimates that of the 5 million people affected nationally by Obama's action, about 1 million of them live in California. But not all of them will be eligible for Medi-Cal, he said. Roughly 40 percent of undocumented immigrants receive employer-based insurance; others will make too much money to qualify for Medi-Cal.

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