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As Calif. mulls new legislation, state called ‘most inclusive’ on immigrant health

As Calif. mulls new legislation, state called ‘most inclusive’ on immigrant health

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California is a leader nationwide when it comes to looking out for the health of undocumented immigrants, but there are still many more opportunities to foster their wellbeing. 

That’s one finding of University of California researchers who published a joint report examining and grading the policy landscape for undocumented immigrants throughout the country. Their findings come as an immigrant health bill advances in California, legislation that would make low-income undocumented immigrants eligible for Medi-Cal (the state’s Medicaid program) or allow them to purchase private insurance through an unsubsidized exchange plan.

“California is more inclusive compared to other states, but one thing we highlighted is that there is still room for growth,” said UCLA researcher Maria-Elena Young, one of the report’s authors, in an interview with Reporting on Health. “With the Lara bill, policy makers aren’t settling. They’re pushing for policies to make sure undocumented immigrants have an opportunity to be healthy.”

The University of California joint report evaluated health-specific criteria such as access to prenatal care and children’s health insurance but also reviewed policies that can affect one’s overall well-being, such as higher education access or the ability to get a driver’s license. When all the scores were tallied, California had the most inclusive set of policies nationwide when it came to fostering the health of undocumented immigrants. (Next was Illinois, followed by Washington state. Last place went to Ohio.)

Health insurance is essential since it provides primary care and early treatment; otherwise, patients may wait until their ailments are critical enough to visit the emergency room, Young said. But the health of undocumented immigrants is shaped by a wide range of social factors that influence overall well-being and stress levels. That’s why the report also evaluated policies that might fall outside of the traditional realm of what’s called “health,” such as labor and employment practices.

“We’re thinking of policy as a whole,” Young said. “Anyone working on immigrant health needs to think broadly.”

Some legislators in California are doing just that. The Lara bill, sponsored by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and already passed the Senate Health Committee, is one of 10 introduced in the legislature that would offer additional protection and resources for undocumented immigrants. This includes legislation that would ban businesses from discriminating based on someone’s immigration status, citizenship or language; one that would create an “Office of New Americans” in the governor’s office to help with naturalization services; and one that would increase deportation protections.

In a press conference earlier this month, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said that forcing undocumented immigrants to “live in the shadows” results in a loss to everyone in the form of lost wages, revenues, innovation and justice.

But the bills — especially the so-called Lara bill that would expand health insurance among the undocumented — face huge financing hurdles. Last year, a more costly version of that legislation was shelved as a result of funding concerns. In a recent program on KPCC’s “AirTalk,” callers voiced concerns that the series of bills, and the state’s overall approach, would promote more illegal immigration. 

A story in the San Jose Mercury News also raised the question of how Californians will react once they more fully realize the financial costs of supporting undocumented immigrants. In that article, State Republican Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), said the bill will be “difficult and costly” for state taxpayers to shoulder without help from the federal government, whose failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform has unfairly shifted that burden to states, he added.

University of California researchers echoed the importance of the state’s role in their recent report, though they cast the role as a critical responsibility, not a burden: “Within a federal policy environment that is often exclusionary, states have increasingly played a role in shaping the social and economic factors that affect the health of undocumented immigrants.”

Young, who acknowledged that the report did not focus on the cost of such services, emphasized the importance of California’s trail-blazing approach.

“Regardless of what’s going on in the federal level, states can actively play a role to make sure health care is available to all residents,” she said. “What [the Lara bill] signals to me is the real recognition in California that the state government has a role to play in promoting the health of undocumented immigrants.”

Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr.

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