Undocumented Californians and their supporters were hoping 2020 would be the year that state-subsidized health care became available to all seniors. But in the COVID-19 economy, their fate hangs in the balance.
Roughly 27,000 low-income seniors in California are not eligible for Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health insurance program, due to their immigration status.
Genoveva Islas worries what will happen if undocumented seniors get sick.
As program director for Cultiva La Salud, a healthy living nonprofit based in Fresno, she says many elderly immigrants in her community are still working in the agriculture and food service industries, or as school and hospital custodians.
“It is a shame that their health is not being prioritized, though we are dependent on them,” Islas said. “When they’re no longer able to work, that puts all of our lives at risk.”
In his January budget proposal, Gov. Gavin Newsom included more $80 million to expand Medi-Cal to all seniors, regardless their documentation. He’s now calling his January budget “inoperable” and says many initiatives could be on the chopping block.
“It's really too early to tell, what gives, what doesn't,” the governor told KQED on Wednesday. “But the big, bold, huge expansions that were in the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars ... they're all being reviewed and reconsidered.”
Health and immigration advocates across the state are worried Newsom will cut health care for undocumented seniors, and they’re pushing back.
They say COVID-19 is a reason to speed up this policy, not toss it out.
Advocates say that without state-provided health coverage, many undocumented people are hesitant to access medical care due to possible repercussions from the federal government.
“If you’ve never had access to a health care provider and your only recourse has ever been showing up to an emergency room, what increased risk does that now place you in?” Islas said.
In a letter to the governor last week, a coalition of nonprofits, health clinics, farmworker organizations and legal groups called for immediate investment in the expansion.
On Thursday, the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California and other groups put out a social media call asking people to email their legislators about Medi-Cal for all seniors.
As we care for each other, let’s ensure EVERYONE is included in our public health system, especially vulnerable undocu seniors! Join our #Health4AllSeniors email day to urge @GavinNewsom & #CALeg to expand coverage now: https://t.co/5A5rlUlAGM pic.twitter.com/5BCmLsibIg— Latino Coalition for a Healthy California (@LCHC_CA) April 8, 2020
The push to cover undocumented people over age 65 has been a focus of the universal health care movement for several years. Undocumented children in California have been eligible for Medi-Cal since 2016.
In July 2019, Newsom made California the first state in the nation to offer public insurance to undocumented young adults up to age 26, but a proposal to cover undocumented seniors that same year didn’t make it to the finish line due to funding concerns.
Undocumented people over age 26 can sign up for restricted Medi-Cal, which primarily covers emergency room visits and pregnancy care.
While the movement’s ultimate goal is to insure all Californians, they say the priority right now is making sure all seniors have a way to access medical care if they feel sick.
Newsom has said all COVID-19 testing and screening costs will be covered regardless of your health or immigration status. But follow-up care is “still a question mark,” said Rachel Linn Gish, spokesperson for patient advocacy group Health Access.
“If we can have people going to get the preventive care they need now at the moment that any symptoms start, we could potentially keep people out of emergency rooms at the very time that we need to keep those rooms as available as possible to those who really need it,” she said.
Medi-Cal expansions to undocumented Californians have historically faced some backlash from Republican lawmakers, who feel health care dollars should be preserved for citizens.
At the TODEC Legal Center in the Inland Empire, community programs director Luz Gallegos is getting calls from community members who are worried about COVID-19 symptoms but are afraid to call a doctor or go to the hospital.
She said this population has historically been disconnected from medical help, and now they’re in danger.
“This is real,” she said. “And we’re telling the community and our government that we need to save as many lives as we can, and especially our elders. We’ve lost grandparents, we’ve lost parents because they didn’t have access to preventive care.”
Find multilingual resources on coronavirus prevention, undocumented workers’ rights, nutrition assistance and legal aid for immigrants here.
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