UNDER a budget deal announced Tuesday, June 18 by California Governor Jerry Brown and legislative leaders, an estimated 170,000 undocumented immigrant children aged 18 and younger could receive public health care coverage.
The budget deal for the 2015-16 fiscal year marks another victory for advocates and lawmakers who have worked to make the state more welcoming to undocumented residents.
“With this budget, we’re saying that immigrants matter, irrespective of who you are or where you’re from,” said California Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).
Democratic leaders also won more money for state-funded child care, preschool and dental care, as well as a funding boost for public universities. They gave up on other spending they wanted, instead acceding to Brown’s revenue projection, which was about $3 billion lower than theirs.
The compromise—which Brown described as “strenuous negotiations”—paves the way for a new budget to take effect starting July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
The expansion of Medi-Cal coverage to qualifying immigrant children would begin in May 2016, costing $40 million in the new budget and an estimated $132 million annually afterward.
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who introduced and pushed for the budget change as part of Senate Bill 4, described it as “a modern investment that would prevent children from receiving their healthcare solely in emergency rooms.”
“We are talking about our friends. We are talking about our neighbors and our families who are denied basic healthcare in the richest state of this union,” Lara said, upon the Senate’s approval of SB 4, also known as the Health for All Act. “California once again paves the way while Washington, DC, continues to create roadblocks for these communities.”
Other states, including New York and Massachusetts, already provide health coverage for all kids regardless of immigration status.
“This is both a fiscal and a moral victory for the state,” said Children Now President Ted Lempert. “Leaving vulnerable kids to find their own way through a complex and costly healthcare system is unconscionable.”
According to Children Now, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for the health, education, and well-being of children in California, kids who don’t have primary care physicians are nine times more likely to be hospitalized for preventable conditions, and uninsured children admitted to the emergency room are 60 percent more likely to die than children with insurance.
“It’s more cost-effective for children to get preventive care than for families to use the emergency room. So this decision also makes good economic sense,” Lempert added.
Additionally for children, improved access to health coverage has been shown to increase academic success and high school graduation rates. Medicaid-eligible children are also more likely to attend college, make greater contributions as taxpayers and live longer than kids growing up without health coverage and access to preventive care, Children Now reported.
The final agreement in the Legislature was announced a day after it approved $117.5 billion in general fund spending, $2.2 billion more than Brown wanted. Continuing talks produced a final plan of $115.4 billion, only slightly larger than the Democratic governor’s original proposal.
The decision was denounced solely by Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports strict enforcement of immigration laws.
“This is just one more example of California paying huge bills for its continued efforts to accommodate illegal immigration,” Mehlman said. “It forces taxpayers to pay money to provide healthcare that could be going to other vital needs in the state.”
However, some work remains unfinished. The governor called for special legislative sessions to address road repairs and public health care. Other areas that will be addressed in the future include restoring previous cuts to medically necessary Medi-Cal benefits, restoring provider rate reimbursements, and overall laying the groundwork for a capped program for undocumented immigrant adults.
A series of shuffles—such as adjusting a healthcare cost estimate, adding restrictions to a scholarship program, and consolidating some administrative functions—left enough money available for lawmakers to obtain higher funding in other areas.
“This is a sound and well-thought-out budget,” Brown said.
The blueprint has an additional $265 million for preschool and state-subsidized child care, more than half of what lawmakers originally wanted. In addition, payments to dentists who serve low-income patients would be restored to pre-recession levels at a cost of $30 million.
Brown described the budget deal as “a gradual unfolding of deeper understanding,” not saying if he had threatened to veto the Legislature’s budget.
Lawmakers voted on the agreement Friday, June 19. The special legislative sessions, which could run concurrently with the regular session, will be held later this year to address remaining issues.
Brown intends to use the session on healthcare to revise and extend the state’s tax on managed-care plans to comply with federal regulations.
“Without the tax,” Brown said, “California would lose a sustainable source of funding for public healthcare and in-home care for low-income elderly and disabled residents.”
Overall, more work needs to be done to ensure that all children and their families get the care they need to grow up healthy. The Legislature’s decision proved to be an important step towards aligning state policy with California’s top priority of taking care of its citizens. (with reports from Los Angeles Times)
(LA Weekend June 20 – 23, 2015 Sec A pg.1)