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California effort is underway to allow immigrants in U.S. illegally to buy healthcare coverage

California effort is underway to allow immigrants in U.S. illegally to buy healthcare coverage
Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee, center, gathers with local lawmakers at an open enrollment event in 2015. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

California would be the first state in the nation to ask the federal government to allow immigrants in the country illegally to purchase health insurance through a state exchange under new proposed legislation.

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) authored a bill that would have the state formally request the federal government to give permission for immigrants to pay for coverage through Covered California without cost to the state or federal government.

The federal permission would allow as many as 390,000 immigrants who earn an income too high to qualify for Medi-Cal to purchase healthcare through the exchange under the Affordable Care Act, Lara said.

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"This proposal affirms our commitment to embrace and integrate our immigrant community, to lead where the federal government has failed and to acknowledge the hard work and sacrifice of a community that contributes billions of dollars to our GDP," Lara said in a statement.

The Claremont-based group We the People Rising, which calls for strict enforcement of existing immigration laws, criticized the measure.

"We oppose that [bill] because that encourages illegal immigration," said Robin Hvidston, executive director of the group. "It sends a message to the world that if you come to our country you will be rewarded."

The federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, prohibits people in the country illegally from purchasing health plan coverage through state exchanges even if they can afford to pay full price.

The proposal, SB 10, has a good chance of passing the Legislature, coming just days after the Covered California board endorsed a proposal to apply for a waiver to allow immigrants in the country illegally to buy health insurance with their own money through the exchange.

Lara said the board understands that "prohibiting immigrants from buying insurance from the state exchange with their own money is an irrational and discriminatory policy that doesn't reflect our California values."

Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a public position on the bill, but supporters say it may appeal to the frugal governor because it would not present additional expense to the state.

The proposed waiver would build upon a campaign by the California Latino Legislative Caucus to eventually provide healthcare coverage for all immigrants.

A waiver for adults with means must be approved by the state Legislature and governor before it can be considered by the federal government, Lara said. The state must certify that the change will not diminish coverage or affordability, and will not add costs for the federal government.

Then the federal Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Treasury have 225 days to make a decision. By expediting state approval of the bill, Lara hopes to have the request considered by President Obama's administration before he leaves office.

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