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California Set To Expand Medicaid To Undocumented Young Adults

Jul 11, 2019
Originally published on July 11, 2019 8:02 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Medicaid provides health care to low-income people, and California is now set to become the first state to offer it to undocumented immigrants up to the age of 26. It's part of a bigger plan to eventually get everyone in the state covered. But California's making the move at a time when the Trump administration and some other states are trying to restrict who gets government health benefits. Sammy Caiola has the story from Sacramento.

SAMMY CAIOLA, BYLINE: For most of Beatrice Basurto's life, the doctor's office has been a last resort.

BEATRICE BASURTO: When you get sick, home remedies are all you know your life. So it's just basically, like, a suck-it-up type of thing.

CAIOLA: She's 19 years old and moved to California with her family from Mexico when she was a toddler. She and her parents aren't citizens so they're excluded from Medi-Cal. That's California's version of Medicaid. But starting in January, California will allow Beatrice and other undocumented people to get Medi-Cal from the age of 19 until they turn 26. Beatrice is hoping this new policy will give her access to mental health counseling. Even though she's applying for citizenship, she's still pretty stressed out about her legal status.

BASURTO: The world isn't always so welcoming. It can be really, really overwhelming. It exhausts you mentally. And it's almost like I have no time to feel, feel anything because there's always something else, like, I have to do.

CAIOLA: In California, undocumented kids 18 and under are already eligible for comprehensive Medi-Cal. Undocumented adults are only covered if it's for emergency or pregnancy care. Supporters of the expansion to cover young adults say getting more people coverage will improve public health and cut down on hospital costs. But opponents don't want to spend state dollars on people they consider illegal residents. Republican Senator Jeff Stone spoke against the expansion at a recent hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF STONE: We are going to be a magnet that is going to further attract people to the state of California that's willing to write a blank check to anyone that wants to come here.

CAIOLA: President Donald Trump called out California on this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You look at what they're doing in California, how they're treating people. They don't treat their people as well as they treat illegal immigrants.

CAIOLA: California Governor Gavin Newsom responded by saying the state embraces all of its residents. And he says offering coverage to everyone is the eventual goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: We believe in universal health care. Universal health care's a right, and we're delivering it, regardless of immigration status, to everyone up to the age of 26. And we're going to get the rest of that done. Mark my words.

CAIOLA: There were proposals this year to offer insurance to even more people in the state, like undocumented seniors. But those efforts failed because of the potential cost. Almas Sayeed is with the California Immigrant Policy Center. She says providing health care is crucial given federal anti-immigrant hostility.

ALMAS SAYEED: Young people feel that, too, this proposal to expand Medi-Cal to undocumented young adults is really a message that institutions are accessible to you regardless of status. You belong here, and you deserve to thrive.

CAIOLA: When the Medi-Cal guidelines change in January, Beatrice Basurto plans to sign up. She's lived in California almost her whole life. It's her home. She's going to college near Los Angeles and wants to be an environmental scientist. Beatrice says getting insurance will make her feel a little more like a Californian.

BASURTO: I do belong here, regardless of what others say. But it doesn't become permanent until I see that on a piece of paper.

CAIOLA: California expects to enroll 138,000 undocumented young people next year at a cost of $98 million. For NPR News, I'm Sammy Caiola in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.