SACRAMENTO — California Democratic lawmakers so far have failed to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom that the state can afford to spend an estimated $2.6 billion a year to expand its Medicaid program to all unauthorized immigrants.
Now, they’re trying a new strategy.
Rather than working independently, a fiercely liberal state senator from Los Angeles and a moderate Assembly member from the Central Valley are joining forces to pressure Newsom to make California the first state in the nation to cover every income-eligible resident regardless of immigration status. Unauthorized immigrants up to age 26 can already qualify for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income residents.
Emboldened by the win of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden and spurred by the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic, state Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly member Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) plan to introduce a two-bill package on Monday that would cover unauthorized senior immigrants first, and eventually the remainder of California’s undocumented immigrant population.
“It’s a national issue. Look at how all the national Democratic candidates raised their hands in front of the world to support covering undocumented immigrants in health insurance,” Durazo told California Healthline. “We want a clear commitment to finally do this, not just lip service.”
Newsom has long touted his goal of achieving universal health coverage in California and made campaign promises to work toward a single-payer health care system. But after nearly two years in office, Newsom’s ambitious health care agenda has been sidetracked by deadly wildfires and a widening homelessness crisis — as well as the COVID-19 pandemic — and he has not managed to dramatically expand coverage.
California currently covers about 200,000 unauthorized immigrant children and young adults, according to the state Department of Health Care Services. The state budgeted about $375 million to cover young adults ages 19 through 25 this fiscal year, but does not track spending for undocumented immigrant children, according to the state Department of Finance.
Opening the low-income health program to all eligible undocumented immigrants would expand coverage to at least 915,000 low-income residents and cost an additional $2.6 billion annually, according to a projection this year by the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office. There are an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrant Californians who are uninsured, estimates show, but not all of them would qualify.
Public support for expanding coverage to unauthorized immigrants has risen over the past few years, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. But expending scarce taxpayer resources on such an effort is politically risky, said Doug Herman, a Los Angeles-based national Democratic strategist.
“Gavin’s got bigger priorities right now and he has been wounded, so he has to be very cautious about what he does,” Herman said. “Look at the French Laundry and [Employment Development Department] scandals. The homelessness crisis is raging and the prison outbreak happened on his watch. This doesn’t rise to that level.”
Newsom communications director Jesse Melgar said no one from his office was available for comment.
Since Newsom took office, Durazo and Arambula have authored separate bills to expand Medi-Cal to more undocumented immigrants. Durazo has gotten close after negotiating with Newsom — only for the first-term Democratic governor to back out, citing costs.
Such proposals have received widespread legislative support among Democratic lawmakers, who hold supermajority power in both houses of the state legislature.
A worsening economic outlook and long-term budget pressures could once again derail their efforts. Because the federal government prohibits states from using federal Medicaid dollars to cover undocumented immigrants — except for emergency services — California would have to pick up most of the price tag, which could top $3 billion annually to cover everyone, including children and adults, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Newsom will be forced to weigh an onslaught of budget demands while managing, and paying for, the ongoing COVID-19 emergency.
“That gives Newsom the ability to delay or oppose anything that doesn’t fit his agenda,” Herman said.
But some lawmakers, immigration rights activists and health care advocates argue the COVID pandemic has made their campaign more urgent as Latino and Black residents get sick and die at disproportionate rates.
Politicians cannot ignore that the pandemic has exposed a broken health care system that has left millions of taxpaying Californians without health coverage because their immigration status renders them ineligible, said Sarah Dar, director of health and public benefits for the California Immigrant Policy Center, which is already lobbying the governor to support the Medi-Cal expansion.
“Now we have a full picture of what this crisis is, and the blatant disparities faced by our essential workers, so there’s no excuse,” she said. “Immigrant communities and farmworkers in the food and agricultural sector, like meatpacking plants, have literally been hotbeds for the spread of disease.”
Dar acknowledged financial pressures ahead for the state, and said advocates will be pushing for ways to generate money to pay for the expansion, possibly including tax increases.
There could be some hope for a one-time cash infusion. Fiscal estimates show California could reap a $26 billion surplus next year, largely from personal income tax receipts from high-income earners who have not suffered devastating economic losses during the pandemic, according to state fiscal analysts. Durazo and Arambula are eyeing that revenue for the Medi-Cal expansion.
“He has routinely stated his vision, but we’d like Gov. Newsom to deliver on health care for all during his governorship,” Arambula said. “I’m not going to sit and wait.”
Durazo said she would introduce a bill Monday to expand Medi-Cal to unauthorized immigrant Californians age 65 and older. She put a similar bill on hold in 2019, in exchange for a commitment from Newsom to include the proposal in this year’s state budget.
Durazo and other backers decided to craft a new approach: Alongside Durazo’s bill to cover older adults, Arambula plans to introduce companion legislation to cover all undocumented immigrant adults.
The lawmakers are using the two bills as a negotiating tactic. Arambula and advocates said they hope to win coverage for undocumented immigrants 65 and older next year, while developing a plan with Newsom to expand coverage to the entire population at some point during his governorship.
Durazo said both bills are equally important and are intentionally being used to pressure the governor into action next year.
“This is our way to finally have a real conversation about what it’ll take to get everyone covered, given we’ll have federal partners with the Biden-Harris administration,” said Orville Thomas, director of government affairs for the California Immigrant Policy Center.