Report: 125,000 immigrants given deferred action eligible for Medi-Cal

Erica Sol, right and daughter Gudalupe Curiel, 3, listen during a screening event for Covered California and Medi-Cal enrollees at Our Lady of Peace Parish in North Hills. Obamacare sign-up events are picking up as the March 31 open-enrollment deadline approaches.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

A new report shows that as many as 125,000 young California immigrants may qualify for an expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.

The Affordable Care Act bars insurance subsidies and enrollment in the Medicaid expansion for undocumented immigrants, but a wrinkle in California rules does offer coverage for those with “deferred action status.”

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was created by President Obama in 2012 to grant immigrants who came to the country illegally as children -- sometimes called Dreamers -- legal status and work authorization for two-year periods.

Laurel Lucia, a policy analyst at the UC Berkeley Labor Center and author of the report released Tuesday, said California is one of the few states that lets youth with deferred action status enroll in Medicaid.

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“But the word still hasn’t been spread,” she said.

The report found that 154,000 people in California had been granted the status as of December 2013. About 81%, or 125,000, are eligible for Medi-Cal based on their annual income, which has to be less than $15,850 for an individual.

To be eligible for deferred action, immigrants had to arrive in the U.S. before they were 16, be under 31 as of June 2012 and to have continuously lived in the U.S. since 2007.

There’s no data about how many have signed up for Medi-Cal, but the fear of deportation for themselves or family members has probably kept many from enrolling, Lucia said. Federal authorities have said they will not use information provided to determine healthcare eligibility to pursue immigrants in the country illegally.

Diane Vanette, a volunteer with OneLA who screens people at Obamacare enrollment events, recently informed a couple with deferred-action status that they were both eligible for Medi-Cal.

“He was shocked, she was shocked,” Vanette said.

This issue illustrates the complexities in expanding coverage to the state’s large uninsured Latino population. About 82% of DACA-eligible Californians are Latino, according to the report.

The Covered California exchange has been criticized for failing to connect with the state’s Latino population, and for not getting Latinos to sign up in greater numbers. Covered California said last week it would spend $8.2 million through March on Spanish-language advertising, up 73% from spending in fourth quarter.

Mayra Yoana Jaimes Pena, 25, was granted DACA-status last year, and signed up for Medi-Cal this month. Though her three siblings are citizens, her parents lack legal status.

She said she was wary of putting her name in the system and skeptical that she could actually qualify for a government program.

“There was this real hesitancy of what if this becomes a negative experience,” she said.

Tanya Broder, a senior attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said that as the gaps in coverage become more clear as Obamacare shakes out, more states could adopt policies like California’s in the future.

“All states are going to have to look at the people who remain uninsured or uncovered after the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented,” she said. “Providing only emergency care is not the best way.”

Experts predict that between 3 million and 4 million people will remain uninsured in California in 2019.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) introduced legislation this month that would extend state-funded Medi-Cal coverage to low-income immigrants who are in California without legal status. They are now eligible only for emergency and pregnancy coverage.


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