Immigration Reform Stalled, But CA’s ‘Health For All’ Bill on Its Way Back

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LOS ANGELES -- A day before President Obama announced that he will not take executive action on immigration reform before the November elections, Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Los Angeles) renewed his pledge to extend health coverage to undocumented immigrants in California.

Speaking to a group of ethnic media reporters in Los Angeles, Lara said that his “Health For All” bill, which in 2014 was intended to expand health care access for the undocumented, will be the first legislation that he reintroduces when the state legislature reconvenes in January.

While the federal government puts the brakes on immigration reform, Lara is pushing forward: “Our communities can’t wait … California has to lead where the federal government continues to fail,” he said.

“I’m very confident we can get this done this upcoming legislative session,” he continued. “We all know that what happens in California moves through the rest of the nation … It is our responsibility to show the federal government that we can cover our undocumented community.” The state senator also discussed possibilities for how this expanded coverage might be funded.

The change can’t come soon enough for undocumented individuals who have had to postpone getting care, several of whom spoke along with Lara at the press briefing convened by New America Media last week.

California takes the lead in expanding health coverage

Health care access has expanded widely under the Affordable Care Act, especially in California, where youth eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – which offers temporary legal status to some undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children – also qualify for Medi-Cal.

“California is a state that’s really been progressive about extending coverage to a lot of people that other states aren’t,” said John Connolly, associate director of the Santa Monica-based Insure the Uninsured Project.

Adalhi Montes, 22, is one of those who has benefited from that policy. Montes didn’t know that he lacked health coverage until a year ago, when he was experiencing severe pain in one of his legs. When he tried to obtain insurance, he found out that he couldn’t because he was undocumented. Instead, he had to rely on a health clinic.

“You get up in the early morning, around 5 or 6, and you go to the clinic, and you wait in this line. Hopefully they have enough numbers for you to get chosen to actually see the doctor,” he said. “If you don’t get chosen, you have to come back the next day.”

After receiving DACA status and successfully applying for Medi-Cal, he was able to see a doctor, where he finally got a diagnosis and physical therapy.

DACA recipient Reyna Moreno, who also qualified for Medi-Cal after years of health problems, said, “I personally felt very relieved at the fact that now I was able to go to the doctor without fear ... I was just overwhelmed before that.”

Irma Montoya, though, undocumented and age 53, does not qualify for Medi-Cal. She had to wait three years for an operation on her hip, while also waiting for a procedure on a cyst in her chest.

“I wake up with the option of just taking Tylenol and lying in bed because I don’t know when I will have access to the care that I need,” she said through a translator (her son Alessandro, a coordinator with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund).

“Immigrant communities are not unwilling to pay, we just want the same access as everyone,” she added.

Health For All redux is coming, but funding mechanism needed

Sen. Lara grew up in Los Angeles with parents who were undocumented. As a child he would translate for them when they went to health clinics, and he remembers driving them to Tijuana to get health care when he was a teenager, always “expecting the worst to happen.”

Lara’s bill would create a health insurance exchange for California’s undocumented community, similar to the state exchange created by the Affordable Care Act. It would also expand the state’s Medi-Cal program to allow undocumented individuals to qualify.

But, he says, in 2015, he can’t send the governor a bill that lacks a funding mechanism.

Two ideas being explored are fees on driver’s licenses for those who are undocumented, as well as new fees on remittances (money that individuals send to their home countries).

Lara says that funding mechanisms like these tend to poll well because of “a sense of immigrants paying for their own health care. The average voter understands that.”

“Now, is that fair to do? Is that another burden on folks that are already low-income? Those are the discussions we’re having at the state level now,” he said. “Are our immigrant populations ready to maybe pay a little extra to be able to access health care? I think [the answer to] that question is going to be yes.”

He’s optimistic about the bill’s chances this time around, and is hopeful about bipartisan support. “I’ve had conversations with various Republicans in Sacramento who understand the basic fiscal theory – if we allow people to be able to treat themselves and give them the access to health care, they, in turn, are not in our emergency rooms,” he said.

“Hopefully one day we get immigration reform, but I am not going to sit here and wait for the federal government to act,” he said.