Image: When Adalhi Montes, 21, of Long Beach, Calif., was granted DACA status, nobody bothered to tell him he could also qualify for state-funded Medi-Cal. / Photo courtesy VoiceWaves
Editor’s Note: Last year, the Obama administration announced a new program for undocumented immigrants who entered the country at age 16 or younger, and who have lived in the United States continuously since 2007. The DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program will allow immigrants to live and work in the country for two-year renewable periods, provided they maintain their student status or serve in the U.S. military.
Unbeknownst to many of the approximately 127,200 California DACA recipients, their families and health care advocates, recipients 21 and under could also be eligible for exclusively state-funded Medi-Cal. It’s a program California set up, after the federal government in 1996 passed the Welfare Reform Act that slapped a five-year waiting period on newly legalized immigrants to access public health programs. The program, funded solely with state money, is identical to the larger Medi-Cal program funded with both federal and state dollars, and bears the same name. Once expanded Medi-Cal rolls out on Jan. 1, 2014, DACA recipients could enroll in it, provided they can establish state residency.
New America Media interviewed four DACA students in Sacramento, San Francisco, Long Beach and Oxnard to find out what having health insurance means to them.
Itzel Martinez, 19
Not having health insurance nearly put Itzel Martinez at the mercy of a collection agency, after she wasn’t able to come up with the $1,500 the hospital billed her for stitching up her cut lip.
The eldest daughter of farmworkers in Oxnard, Calif., who barely earned enough to feed themselves and their five children – four of them U.S.-born -- Martinez got DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status about one year ago.
But neither she nor her parents were aware until about a month ago that as a DACA recipient, she could apply for state-funded Medi-Cal. Had they known, it would have spared them three months of stress over not being able to pay the hospital bill.
Back in June, Martinez slipped and fell in the kitchen of her family home, and split her lip on the counter. Her mother rushed her to the emergency room of a local hospital. The wound required four stitches, a procedure that took only a couple of hours. The hospital later sent a bill for $1,500.
Unable to pay it, Martinez has been trying unsuccessfully to get the hospital to waive the costs. The hospital threatened last month to send the bill to a collection agency if she doesn’t pay up.
“That is why a lot of older immigrant kids won’t go to see a doctor when they fall sick, because they are afraid that if they don’t pay up their medical bills it will mess up their credit ratings,” observed Alicia Reyes of La Hermandad, a youth and family center for immigrants in Oxnard, Calif.
A couple of weeks ago, Martinez applied for state-funded Medi-Cal, after she found out through New America Media that she might be eligible. A social service worker from the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project helped her to fill out the form.
When she does get Medi-Cal, it will be applied three months retroactively, according to Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. That means Martinez will not have to face the collection agency.
“It will be such a relief to have health insurance… I won’t have to deal with hospital bills,” said Martinez, who is currently a student at Oxnard Community College. Evenings, she works at a neighborhood pizza parlor so “I can have some spending money, and help with family expenses,” she said.
Miguel Tiburcio, 17
A Natomas Charter School senior in Sacramento, Miguel Tiburcio got his DACA card earlier this year, but no one told him or his family that he might be eligible for state-funded Medi-Cal.
Next year, the youngster will age out of the Kaiser Children’s Health Insurance program offered to kids up to age 18, who do not qualify for public health care insurance programs because of their immigration status or family income. The program has given Tiburcio access to doctors to treat his allergy-induced asthma, which has been bothering him for the last three years.
Tiburcio’s father, Angel, lost his driver’s job with a construction company last year, and things have been hard for the family ever since. Both Angel and his wife, Maria, are doing everything they can to keep Miguel and his younger sister, Paulina, 15, in school. Paulina is planning to apply for DACA in a few weeks, after she turns 16.
Knowing that he might qualify for Medi-Cal is a relief, Miguel Tiburcio said, “especially because I don’t know when I will have my next asthma attack.”
Tiburcio is planning to go on to college and major in psychology, with a minor in music. The youngster is in his high school’s percussion ensemble.
Having DACA, he said, has opened up many opportunities to him. Most importantly, “it will facilitate furthering my education,” he said.
Jesus Castro, 18
In the 13 years that Mexico-born DACA recipient Jesus Castro has been in the United States, he has had to use his Healthy Kids San Francisco card only a few times at a local community clinic for minor health issues.
Healthy Kids is a health insurance program created to provide coverage to children who do not qualify for Medi-Cal. The program provides coverage for comprehensive medical, dental, vision and behavioral health services and, in San Francisco, is administered by the San Francisco Health Plan.
Castro, who is enrolled in City College of San Francisco, knows the importance of having health insurance. Prior to enrolling in Healthy Kids, he dislocated his shoulder while in kindergarten. The nurse at the hospital his father took him to told the youngster the hospital would need to put his shoulder in a cast. For his dad, that would have meant spending out of pocket.
“So my father took me home and then to a curandero – a traditional healer -- who gently manipulated the shoulder joint and set it right,” Castro recalled.
The memory of his undocumented and uninsured mother being rushed to a hospital one day a few years ago with a severe nosebleed, and the “stack of bills” that piled up from that visit is also still fresh in his mind, Castro said. As is the memory of his dad falling off a ladder while roofing a two-story building and thankfully ending up with nothing more than a few bruises because a tree branch broke his fall.
“He could have died that day,” Castro said.
“If Medi-Cal is available for me, now that I am a DACA recipient, I will definitely enroll in it,” he said. “I am healthy now, but God forbid should something happen.”
Adalhi Montes, 21 (Pictured above)
From being a “very healthy” and active youngster, Mexico-born Adalhi Montes three years ago started experiencing pain in his leg, first somewhat intermittently, and later constantly.
“I didn’t think someone my age would experience so much pain,” Montes said. “I thought I would experience pain only in my old age.”
The pain became so intense a year ago, “I could barely walk or even stand,” he said. Some nights, it kept him awake.
After going from clinic to clinic in and around Long Beach, Calif., and using up all the money his mother had saved for his college, he was finally told that he was suffering from “iliotibial band syndrome,” an inflammation of a band of connective tissue that runs from the hip to the shinbone.
When the stretching exercises he was told to do did not help, a doctor suggested a course of cortisone injections, something Montes said he doesn’t want to consider because of the possible side effects. Ibuprofen has kept his pain a little under control, he said.
Earlier this year, Montes, a graduate of Millikan High in Long Beach, got DACA status that allowed him to snag a part time job with VoiceWaves, a community media organization in Long Beach.
Come January 1, 2014, he’s planning to apply for state-funded Medi-Cal, when it expands to allow single, low-income childless adults like him to enroll.
“It’s so important to have insurance because it will allow me to not have to live with the pain that’s been a part of my life for so long,” Montes said.