California Pushes To Expand Millions Of Immigrants’ Access To Health Care

An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States don’t have access to health benefits under Obamacare. And, in the ongoing debate over the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, some Republican legislators want to go further and prevent those immigrants from accessing taxpayer-sponsored health care even after they gain permanent legal status. Despite the federal gridlock on the issue, however, some states are taking matters into their own hands.

An unlikely coalition of health care nonprofits, county leaders, labor unions, and immigrant advocates in California are pushing for legislative change. They point out that failing to provide basic health services for the entire immigrant population will actually end up costing the state, which is home to about 2.6 million undocumented immigrants, more money in the long run.

“California has really acknowledged that all immigrants who are here are part of our present and our future, so we need them to be healthy and included in any effort we make to expand health care,” Daniel Zingale, a senior vice president with the nonprofit foundation the California Endowment, explained to the New York Times. “It doesn’t take much to figure out these people will be driving our economy in the decades to come, so it’s in our interest to keep them healthy.”

The Golden State has an estimated 12 million residents who are currently uninsured. California is already taking steps to address that reality by undertaking some of the optional reforms under Obamacare, like expanding its Medicaid program to cover additional low-income people. But counties with high populations of undocumented immigrants, like Los Angeles, warn that Obamacare’s reforms won’t actually help cut down on their costs if immigrants are left out of the equation. Barring some immigrants from preventative care — which ultimately forces them to delay treatment until they end up in the hospital with a serious condition and a bill they’re unable to pay — will put a serious strain on local governments.


Of course, many advocates also point to the human cost of denying immigrants access to the health services they need. In California, undocumented immigrants typically resort to underground, cash-only “bodgea clinics” for their medical needs. But many others are simply going without. And when undocumented immigrants check themselves into an ER once they desperately need care, they run the risk of being deported from their hospital beds.

The California Endowment began running TV ads this year that depicted young, undocumented immigrants pleading for health care. Zingale said those ads didn’t receive the type of negative backlash the foundation was anticipating. “We’ve seen a total sea change in the way we think about health care for all and immigration,” he told the New York Times. “I think in the end, it’s inevitable that we’re going to come down on the side of inclusion broadly.”

That trend is evident on a national level, too. The vast majority Americans are in favor of providing health benefits to formerly undocumented immigrants with provisional legal status.