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Advocates Push for More Expanded Medi-Cal Sign-Ups to Access Dental and Mental Care

LOS ANGELES -- Nearly all of the 120,000 or so undocumented children in California who were previously enrolled in restricted Medi-Cal (California’s name for Medicaid, the insurance program for low-income people) are now enrolled in full-scope Medi-Cal, giving them access to a wide range of services, including dental and mental health care.

Now, six months after expanded Medi-Cal for all children launched, health care advocates are trying to reach the deportation-wary parents of an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 undocumented minors who have yet to enroll.

“Your children are eligible for dental care,” said panelist Maritza C. Cabezas, dental director at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “Dental disease is 100 percent preventable.”

Cabezas, one of five panelists at the Nov. 3 New America Media ethnic media briefing, co-hosted by Maternal and Child Access (MCHA), said that dental care needs are great in Los Angeles County, which has a large low-income immigrant population.

“More than seven out of ten third-graders in Los Angeles County have some kind of dental disease,” she said. “This is heart-breaking … It’s hard to focus on your studies when you’re in pain.”

Panelists at the session said untreated dental disease could result in medical crises. One mother of two undocumented children – Sukey Ramirez – said her young son had the reverse experience. The medications the 6-year-old boy has been taking to treat a heart condition has ruined his teeth, she said.

Now, “we need dental services to keep him healthy,” she said, noting: “My two children have benefitted from expanded Medi-Cal.”

Under that six-month-old law made possible by Senate Bill 75, undocumented youths who are 19 or younger are eligible for full coverage that will pay for preventive care and routine medical, dental and mental visits, in addition to emergency care. Information on applications for coverage is not shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, panelists said.

Olivet León, an 18-year-old Los Angeles County resident, had been suffering from abdominal pain for some time. When Medi-Cal expanded to undocumented children last May, she went to a physician who discovered gallstones. Leon was scheduled to speak at the briefing but was unable to attend because she was scheduled for surgery on the day of the event.

“Before the expansion of Medi-Cal, she didn’t how she would pay for any diagnosis or treatment,” said Ama Leiva, a staff member at Maternal and Child Health Access.

While parents are attentive to physical medical issues, many do not recognize – or are slow to respond to – mental health problems, said panelist Tania Benacerraf, a clinical social worker at the Hope Street Family Center in Los Angeles.

“If a child demonstrates emotional distress or behavioral problems, some parents think, ‘This is going to pass,’ or ‘the child needs to buck up,’” she said. “People don’t seem to realize the brain is part of our body. (It) is an organ that deserves attention.”

Benacerraf said that some mental illnesses are hereditary but pointed out that some conditions are the result of trauma. Trauma-related mental problems are more common in low-income homes with stressful environments, she said.

“If the mother is depressed, an infant will often be depressed,” said Benacerraf. “Home violence, community violence or stress related to immigration can also be factors.”

Health advocates are encouraging parents to sign up their children in full-scope Medi-Cal. Those eligible can enroll any time because because there is no Open Enrollment for the program, said Mayra Alvarez, president of The Children’s Partnership, a Los Angeles-based organization that advocates policies to improve the health of underserved children.

Alvarez said health coverage also improves the life prospects of children.

“Children with coverage show more signs of being ready to succeed,” she said. “They are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to go to college.”

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