Medi-Cal To Expand Eligibility To Young Undocumented Adults. But Will They Enroll?

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Starting in January, young adults can sign up for California’s Medicaid program regardless of immigration status.

But a fundamental question looms: Will they?

Some young people already say they won’t enroll in public coverage because they fear federal immigration policies could later penalize them for participating — though that fear might be unfounded.

Add to that their age. Young adults — both immigrants and non-immigrants — are notoriously hard to convince of the necessity of health insurance. The insurance industry even has coined a special term for them: “young invincibles.”

“Young adults, undocumented or not, tend to consider themselves healthy,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, which represents county human services directors. “They’re not thinking ‘This is something I need to worry about.’”

Medi-Cal is California’s version of the federal-state Medicaid program for low-income residents. In May 2016, the state began offering undocumented immigrant children up to age 19 full Medi-Cal coverage, funded by state money. Nearly 129,000 were enrolled in the program in March 2019, according to the most recent data available.

During budget negotiations this year, California lawmakers voted to use more state dollars to expand the program to all income-eligible adults ages 19 to 25, which will make California the first state to offer full Medicaid coverage to unauthorized immigrant adults. The state Department of Health Care Services expects to enroll about 90,000 young adults in the first year.

Of those, nearly 75% are currently enrolled in limited Medi-Cal coverage, which includes emergency and pregnancy-related care. The department plans to transition those individuals into comprehensive coverage, it said.

That leaves health officials and immigrant rights advocates grappling with how to persuade everyone else who is eligible to apply.

Undocumented immigrant adults make up the majority of California’s uninsured population, about 58%, according to the Insure the Uninsured Project.

“The message we have to spread is to think about prevention and chronic conditions, which could start early in life,” said Jeffrey Reynoso, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California.

Advocates must meet young adults where they are, Reynoso said, which means social media is key. His group is creating a social media toolkit that includes Instagram posts and sample tweets tailored to young adults, which will be available to partner organizations.

It also plans to use radio and ethnic media, in cooperation with other groups, to spread the message to families so parents and grandparents can encourage younger family members to sign up, he said.

“We can’t use traditional media to reach this population,” said Sarah Reyes, managing director of communications at the California Endowment, a foundation that promotes health insurance coverage for all Californians, regardless of immigration status. The endowment also is planning social media posts and radio spots on stations that cater to younger people, and is designing ads for display in convenience stores and markets, Reyes said.

Those who make up to 138% of the federal poverty level are eligible for Medi-Cal. This year, that means individuals with annual incomes of up to about $17,200 qualify.

Because Medi-Cal is free for most participants, most young people won’t have to worry about taking a financial hit, said Sarah Dar, senior manager of health and public benefits for the California Immigrant Policy Center. That makes them different from the so-called young invincibles — who generally fall into the 18-to-34 age group — looking for private health coverage, where cost is a major consideration.

But age is not as great a barrier to enrollment as fear of federal immigration rhetoric and policies, Dar said.

For example, since 2017 the Trump administration has been fighting to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows some undocumented people, whose parents brought them into the country illegally as children, to live and work in the U.S. temporarily. The fate of the program rests with the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case Nov. 12.

The Trump administration is also trying to expand its “public charge” rule, which would allow immigration officials to more easily deny permanent residency status to those who depend on certain public benefits, such as Medicaid. Federal judges temporarily blocked it from taking effect in mid-October.

But the fears may be misguided, Dar said. Participants of the DACA program already are eligible for Medi-Cal if they meet the income guidelines. And applying for Medi-Cal wouldn’t count against undocumented young adults should they become eligible to apply for permanent residency later because their coverage will be paid for with state, not federal, money, she said.

“We need to get out a clear message that public charge should not be a concern,” Dar said.

Esmeralda, 20, of Santa Maria, Calif., works in the fields picking strawberries and attends community college when the fruit isn’t in season. She agreed to speak to California Healthline on the condition that her last name not be used.

She needs glasses and has struggled with occasional but debilitating back pain since she was a child in Mexico. The pain sometimes forces her to stop working for the day.

The last time she went to a doctor was almost five years ago, when she started school in the U.S. and had to get vaccinated, she said.

Esmeralda said she would like to sign up for Medi-Cal but will wait to see how the process works for others. She wants to know whether they feel their personal information is being kept safe from federal immigration officials, she said.

“I would wait to make sure there are no problems,” she said in Spanish. “Obviously, with being undocumented, there is fear.”

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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