Full Medi-Cal for undocumented immigrant kids, thanks to new state law

The new law could enroll as many as 4,000 more children in the county, according to estimates from the Redwood Community Health Coalition.|

Thousands of undocumented immigrant children in Sonoma County will soon be eligible for comprehensive health care, thanks to a new state law that begins closing the insurance gap left by the Affordable Care Act.

The law, which is scheduled to be implemented May 16, would allow undocumented immigrant children under age 19 to enroll in full-scope Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. Immigrants who are in the country illegally are not eligible for Obamacare’s two major components - the expansion of Medicaid and state and federal health insurance exchange programs.

While Sonoma County officials and local health care providers have for years taken steps to extend health insurance to thousands of undocumented children, the new law could enroll as many as 4,000 more children in the county, according to estimates from the Redwood Community Health Coalition, a consortium of health centers across four Northern California counties.

“It’s a big deal because it’s a huge success to finally be able to say to every family that there’s a health insurance program that your child can have and your child can go to the doctor when they need to,” said Suzie Shupe, the health coalition’s CEO.

Thousands more who were covered by the more limited emergency Medi- Cal or Kaiser Permanente’s Child Health Plan will be transitioned to comprehensive Medi-Cal coverage, which includes dental, vision, mental and primary health care. Shupe said the change could benefit immigrant children in rural parts of the county, particularly those from farmworker families, many of whom have no health insurance.

“It is a very, very important thing for the families, for each child to have that medical access,” she said. “It opens up a wide variety of health services that they might not have accessed before.”

Shupe said it is difficult to estimate exactly how many undocumented children in the county will become newly enrolled in the state’s health insurance program. She said the range is likely from ?2,000 to 4,000 children.

Currently, there are about 1,022 undocumented kids enrolled in emergency Medi-Cal and 2,758 children enrolled in Kaiser’s Child Health Plan. Including those expected to be enrolled in Medi-Cal after May 1, the total number of undocumented children in Sonoma County could be between 6,000 and 8,000, Shupe said.

Statewide, there are about 115,000 undocumented children on emergency ?Medi-Cal benefits.

Pedro Toledo, chief administrative officer of the Petaluma Health Center, said the number may be on the lower end, since fewer undocumented immigrants are coming to the United States and many kids are “aging out” of Medi-Cal.

Toledo also said that many of the children who do not have any insurance likely live in rural parts of the county. Some of them, he said, live in Rohnert Park.

About 15 years ago, the Sonoma County Health Alliance, a coalition made up of health care providers, hospital officials, nonprofit agencies and county health officials, took on the task of ?extending health insurance to children who were uninsured or did not qualify for Medi-Cal because of their immigration status. That effort led to the creation of Healthy Kids Sonoma County, an ?initiative that blended various health?insurance products for low-income ?kids.

Shupe, a longtime advocate for children’s health coverage, was instrumental in the creation of the Healthy Kids program, which established Sonoma County as a model for extending health insurance to those who did not qualify for Medi-Cal. She said many of the same players now will launch a significant campaign to transition children enrolled in the current patchwork of insurance products to Medi-Cal.

Sherry Novick, managing director of Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s community benefit programs, called the new law “a long-sought victory for child health advocates in California.” Novick said that about 90 percent of the kids in Kaiser’s Child Health Program will become eligible to move to Medi-Cal but will be allowed to remain Kaiser members if they choose to.

The Child Health Program, a subsidized KP membership, was available to children up to age 19 with family incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. It has been available since 1997 to low-income children with no other options for health coverage, Novick said.

Shupe said that while Senate Bill 4 marks a milestone for children’s health care coverage in California, the next goal is extending health insurance to undocumented immigrants of all ages in the local community.

Last year, the Healthy Kids initiative changed its name to Covered Sonoma County, she said. The initiative supports legislative efforts in Sacramento that would extend full-scope Medi-Cal to all undocumented immigrants.

Adam Weintraub, a spokesman for the state Department of Health Care Services, said that any services not eligible for federal funds will be covered only by state dollars. As was the case before ?SB 4, emergency and pregnancy-related services will be funded by state and federal dollars.

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