Illegal immigrants may soon have access to affordable health care in California. In a controversial move that sparked immediate debate beyond state borders, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill on June 10 that would allow undocumented residents to obtain health insurance through the state’s marketplace, Covered California.
The bill’s author, Senator Ricardo Lara, created the bill in an effort to help California’s substantial population of undocumented residents gain access to health care coverage. As it stands, illegal residents are not allowed to sign up for health insurance through federal or state marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act. The new law in California would remove this restriction.
Approximately 2.6 million people lack legal immigration status in California, which accounts for about 7 percent of the state’s population. Nationwide, illegal immigration peaked in 2007 at 4 percent – about 12.2 million undocumented residents – but has remained steady at around 3.5 percent over the past five years. States with the highest percentage of illegal residents include California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey. These states account for 60 percent of the total population of undocumented residents in the United States. In 2012, illegal immigrants made up just over 5 percent of the U.S. workforce.
This isn’t the first time that California has taken steps to provide health insurance for illegal residents. In May 2016, a new bill took effect that allows undocumented residents under the age of 19 to enroll in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. Around 170,000 illegal immigrants are now eligible for the program, but some 390,000 undocumented residents earn too much money to qualify for Medi-Cal.
Not all Californians support the state’s progressive approach to health care. A poll conducted last year by the Los Angeles Times and USC Dornsife found that 47 percent of California voters opposed policies that allowed illegal immigrants access to free or low-cost health insurance programs.
Under the current guidelines of the ACA, illegal immigrants are ineligible from obtaining health insurance on state or federal marketplaces. The new bill in California requests a waiver from the federal government to allow undocumented residents access to the state’s health insurance exchange.
Opponents claim that this measure places an unnecessary strain on California taxpayers. The new law only grants access to the state marketplace. Illegal immigrants would still be ineligible to receive cost assistance in the form of federal subsidies. In 2012, the Golden State spent over $600 million on health-related expenses, including emergency care, for undocumented residents. Access to affordable coverage could help to offset the cost of health care for illegal immigrants.