While a controversial new bill to provide health coverage to undocumented immigrants in California has met with mixed reviews, Catholic advocates for accessible health care are hopeful for the passage of the Health For All Act.
Proposed by State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Huntington Park/Long Beach), SB 1005 would authorize enrollment in the Medi-Cal program, or in insurance offered through a separate new health benefit exchange, to individuals who would otherwise qualify for enrollment in those programs but are denied based on their immigration status.
"Senator Lara is a champion for immigrants because he's the chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus — this will get a lot of attention," said Sandra Vargas, associate director for governmental relations at the bishops' California Catholic Conference.
Noting that SB 1005 is a "spot bill" at the present time, meaning that it cannot be referred to a committee by the Rules Committee without substantive amendments, Vargas is cautiously optimistic that the bill will win legislative support. The bill would address the needs of those in the state ineligible for coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act, which allows only U.S. citizens to purchase policies through health exchanges and receive federal assistance toward coverage.
A coalition of health, immigration, labor and community advocates supporting the bill includes the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), California Immigrant Policy Center, Western Center on Law and Poverty, and Health Access California, among others.
"This Democratic bill probably will get approved through both houses, but I don't know what other amendments to the bill will evolve," said Vargas. If legislators pass the bill, the last step would require a signature by Gov. Jerry Brown in September at the end of the legislative session.
"Last year, the governor was good about signing a lot of immigration legislation," such as driver's licenses for the undocumented, she noted.
"I think the bill has a pretty good chance," added Vargas. "Senator Lara is in conversation with the governor." Among the issues they will have to work out with the state's health department is financing. Lara said he expects his plan to cost slightly less or about the same as the state’s $1.4 billion annual outlay providing emergency care to people without insurance.
“I think this bill is a very, very good thing for the health of the people of California,” said Dr. Xavier Cagigas, a bilingual clinical neuropsychologist practicing in the Los Angeles area. “If we keep citizens and those with legal status healthy but don't provide health care for the undocumented, we won't all be healthy. It's the right and moral thing to do."
“When you talk about public health,” he continued, “it's impossible to separate the health of an individual from the health of the community in which they reside. In reality, SB 1005 represents yet another opportunity for California to lead, to take a stand on an important issue.’
As a Catholic, Cagigas believes this bill represents “a key example” of a preferential option for the poor.
“This issue highlights social inequality, and we have to take a moral and ethical stand to do what's right,” he said. “It also highlights the need to have cultural/linguistically competent doctors to serve limited English speaking populations."