Under a bill signed Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown, California will become the first state to ask federal officials to allow immigrants here illegally to buy insurance through its state health exchange.
Immigrants here illegally can't purchase coverage through the exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act. Under SB 10, the state will formally ask the federal government to allow such immigrants to buy insurance through Covered California, without cost to the state or federal government.
"The current policy disallowing immigrants from purchasing care with their own money is both discriminatory and outdated," Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who wrote the bill, said in a statement. "I thank Gov. Brown for advancing justice today."
The new law is the latest immigrant-friendly policy recently passed in California. Over the last few years, immigrants here illegally have gained the ability to apply for professional licenses, such as for practicing law or medicine, and also for drivers licenses.
Opponents of these policies say they encourage illegal immigration and take away resources from those here legally.
But immigrant advocates have praised California's efforts, especially those around expanding healthcare.
"In order to have truly healthy communities, we all need to have access to affordable, quality healthcare," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director for the National Immigration Law Center. "There is more work to be done, but California's trailblazing efforts on this front should inspire other states to follow."
The federal permission sought through SB 10 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, according to Lara's office. They would not receive public subsidies to reduce the cost of buying insurance.
Since Obamacare took effect two years ago, California legislators have been looking for ways to expand coverage to unauthorized immigrants, who are barred from signing up for insurance under the law.
A UC Berkeley analysis last year found that as many as 1.5 million of the 2.67 million immigrants who are in the state illegally will remain uninsured by 2019. They would make up roughly half of California's anticipated uninsured population.
Last year, the number of California counties committed to providing low-cost, government-run medical care to such residents jumped from 11 to 48.
And Brown signed a bill allowing 170,000 immigrants in the country illegally and under the age of 19 to sign up for Medi-Cal. The expansion took effect last month.
But even as California legislators blaze this trail, expanding health coverage remains a contentious issue among residents.
A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll last year found that though close to half of state voters believed immigrants here illegally should be eligible to receive free or low-cost health insurance through Medi-Cal or a similar program, a statistically equivalent 47% said they opposed such policies.
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5:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about California's recent laws regarding immigrants here illegally.