(Bloomberg) — California is set to become the biggest U.S. state to provide taxpayer-financed health care to children of undocumented immigrants, taking on a $132 million annual burden as Congress blocks federal reform.
The decision to cover about 142,500 immigrant children under Medi-Cal, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid health care plan for the poor, comes at a time when the program’s rolls are swelling from a mandated expansion under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA).
“This is now becoming in a sense the implementation of immigration reform, even bigger immigration reform than they’re considering in Washington,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “One out of eight Americans live in California, so it’s by definition a trailblazer.”
As Republicans block the Obama administration’s efforts to advance immigration reforms in Congress, the state that’s home to a quarter of the undocumented immigrants in the United States is taking the lead in implementing its own changes, including extending driver’s licenses and college financial aid to the 2.8 million Californians who are in the state illegally.
“While Washington dithers because they can’t get things done, we need immigration reform,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said last week at a Sacramento news conference announcing a budget agreement with the governor. “The reality is many of these children require some type of health care and often they receive it in the emergency room and we end up paying for it nonetheless.”
The health funding is part of a $115.4 billion general-fund budget Brown, a 77-year-old Democrat, signed into law on Wednesday. It adds $1.9 billion to the state’s rainy-day fund, spends $380 million on an earned-income tax credit for the poor and steers an additional $14.3 billion to the K-12 school system and community colleges.
A third of the state’s population is already enrolled in Medi-Cal, according to the California Department of Health Care Services.
Republican lawmakers opposed the additional assistance, saying there aren’t enough doctors available to cover those people.
“There are 12.4 million Californians who depend on Medi-Cal right now that have difficulty accessing doctors and services because our reimbursement rates are too low,” Senate Republican leader Bob Huff said during a budget debate on June 19.