Bill introduced to extend health insurance to undocumented immigrants

Bill introduced to extend health insurance to undocumented immigrants »Play Video
Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is seen in a photo from his website.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Making good on a promise, state Sen. Ricardo Lara has introduced a plan to extend health care coverage to undocumented immigrants.

SB 1005 would extend Medi-Cal benefits to low-income immigrants, and it would set up an insurance exchange where these residents could buy coverage. The idea's getting a mixed response.

Lara, D-Long Beach, says all Californians should have health care, regardless of their immigration status. He announced the proposal a number of weeks ago, and introduced the legislation last Friday.

"It's a very sensible, a very just, and a very good proposition for the Legislature to consider," Heritage of America Director Dr. Jess Nieto said on Thursday. He agrees with the arguments Lara makes that adding these residents into health care plans is a good idea.

"The purpose of the Health for All Act is simple - provide health care coverage to California's remaining uninsured by expanding Medi-Cal and creating a new health exchange where the undocumented can purchase coverage," Lara said in a statement Friday.

Under the new Affordable Care Act, Californians get access to health insurance. But, the federal law specifically excludes undocumented immigrants.

"We should make it easier for people to come the legal route," State Assembly member Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, said on Thursday. "But, this is a bad idea every which way you look at it. And the argument that somehow it's going to improve public health overall is specious."

But, that's exactly the argument Lara is making.

"By ensuring everyone has access to health care, we can improve the health of our entire community, limit overcrowding of emergency rooms, and reduce the costs of healthcare in California," Lara said in his Friday statement. He says access to preventive care keeps people healthier.

Lara says almost a million Californians are still uninsured after ACA because they are undocumented.

Critics worry the undocumented don't pay into a system which they would benefit from.

"It doesn't sound good to me," Jay Price commented to Eyewitness News a couple weeks ago. "Taxpayers, I can see. But, undocumented people haven't paid into the system."

Lara disputes that.

"The estimated annual tax contributions of undocumented immigrants in California is $2.7 billion, and 92 percent of this population live in working families," Lara's statement said.

Nieto agrees with that. He says undocumented workers get taxes deducted from their paychecks, but don't get back any benefits.

"They automatically get deducted on their payments, whether it's weekly, or monthly, or whatever it is," Nieto said. He says these workers don't file for refunds or seek out public services. "California gets a windfall of taxes they paid, and they don't get anything back," Nieto said.

Under the proposal, Medi-Cal benefits would be extended to undocumented immigrants in California who would qualify for the assistance. And, the bill would set up the "California Health Benefit Exchange Program for All Californians," which would be run by officials at Covered California.

"That they're going to give free health care to people who are in the country illegally, I think is just nuts," Assembly member Donnelly insisted. "And I think most Californians would oppose that, especially when you're raising their rates and reducing the choices that they have."

Nieto gives the bill a 50-50 chance of passing. But, he hopes the legislature will take it up quickly, "and not to look at it primarily on a political basis."

Nieto argues people are supposed to get equal treatment under the law, and health care for everyone is now the law under the Affordable Care Act. He says that should include undocumented immigrants.

"Even though they don't have legal status," Nieto said. "They certainly can have equal access to various parts of the laws, which have been implemented or passed."