Scaled-back immigrant healthcare bill clears key fiscal panel

.@SenRicardoLara whittles down bill that would offer healthcare to people in the country illegally

A sweeping measure to offer state-subsidized healthcare coverage to people in the country illegally was significantly pared back Thursday in an effort to rein in costs as it cleared a key legislative hurdle.

Rather than extend Medi-Cal--California's healthcare coverage for the poor--to all eligible adults regardless of immigration status, as originally proposed, the amended bill by state Sen. Ricardo Lara would set up a limited enrollment healthcare program. 

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FOR THE RECORD

A previous version of this story said the bill would allow people to buy insurance through the Covered California exchange, pending permission from the federal government, or through a separate state-run marketplace. The latest version of the measure does not include a separate marketplace.

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The program, according to Lara's office, would offer the same coverage as Medi-Cal, but would not be an entitlement. The number of people who could sign up for the program would depend on the state budget and could vary from year to year.

The bill also would extend Medi-Cal access to those under the age of 19. And higher-income people in the country illegally would be allowed to buy insurance through the state-run Covered California exchange, pending permission from the federal government.

“Today’s vote represents a historic step forward on the path towards achieving health for all,” said Lara in a statement. “The amendments reflect two things: what we can realistically achieve now, and what we hope to achieve in the near future. Ensuring that everyone in California is healthy is what’s right for our state.”

Legislative analysts have not yet estimated a cost for the scaled-back plan, but it will likely be substantially lower than the bill's original price tag, which one report pegged as high as $740 million per year.

This is the second time the proposal has been revamped to reduce cost. A stalled version of the bill last year had an estimated cost of as high as $1.4 billion.

Cost has been the biggest stumbling block for the proposal; Gov. Jerry Brown has been wary of the high cost of further expanding the state's healthcare burden. But in his latest budget plan, Brown did propose funds to pay for healthcare of people in the country illegally but would be shielded from deportation if President Obama's executive action goes into effect.

The whittled-down measure, SB 4, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee--a major fiscal panel--on Thursday by a 5-2 vote.

Joseph Villela, policy director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, an immigration advocacy group, said the new version contained "reasonable changes" that account for the state's fiscal constraints.

"They continue to have the spirit of the bill intact and that is to extend protection to people regardless of immigration status," Villela said.

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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