By Wendy Lazarus
California has been a health reform trailblazer, enrolling over 1.3 million individuals in Covered California and 1.9 million people through Medi-Cal as of April 15. Missing from this picture, however, are the estimated one million children and families who remain uninsured and ineligible for coverage due to their immigration status.
On April 30, 2014, California will have an historic opportunity to remedy that profound inequity. SB 1005 by Senator Ricardo Lara will be heard in the Senate Health Committee. The legislation merits the support and attention of our leaders.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) specifically excludes undocumented immigrants from obtaining coverage through Covered California or Medi-Cal, leaving children of immigrant parents especially vulnerable. In California alone, 125,000 children are estimated to lack health insurance due to immigration status, and one in six children has at least one undocumented parent. And because of their immigration status, most children can’t obtain preventive and other necessary health care through the ACA. These children attend school, study in the library, play soccer on Saturday mornings, and join their friends at birthday parties and on playgrounds. But unlike their neighbors, they lack access to health coverage.
Undocumented parents are often reluctant to seek health care, even for their citizen children, because of confusion about eligibility, distrust of government programs, and concern about providing personal family information. We can eliminate that confusion and bring many more children into coverage by ensuring that all family members are able to purchase health coverage.
When it comes to health care, it makes sense to create a program of health coverage for all. Without access to early preventive screenings and regular care, many in the uninsured population turn to emergency rooms to receive care. California spends an estimated $1.3 billion each year providing health care services to the state’s uninsured because people without health coverage often have no choice but to wait until they are seriously ill and need emergency intervention. Treating only seriously ill individuals costs our healthcare system more than providing ongoing routine care.
When parents obtain health insurance, it improves the health and well-being of their children. We know that children are more likely to be covered and receive health care if their parents have coverage. Children with health coverage get regular care that can help avoid more serious illness and costly hospitalizations. A study of local Children’s Health Initiatives programs in nine (9) of California’s fifty-eight (58) counties estimated that when families obtained health coverage, 6,324 childhood hospitalizations were prevented over a five-year period, resulting in approximately $6.7 million in savings to the health care system in these counties alone.
Regular care can also help children succeed both in and outside of school. According to one study, California children who newly enroll in a health coverage program show a nearly 63% improvement rate in educational performance and pay better attention in class. Students’ health also greatly impacts attendance rates, which are closely tied to funding for school districts. Over 850,000 school days are missed in California due to oral health problems alone. Regular health care can mitigate these problems, and provide a pathway towards learning and future success.
Investing in the health of all Californians is an investment in our children and our state’s future. Creating a healthier California depends on improving access to health care and coverage in all communities, including families who are undocumented. We applaud Senator Lara and other legislators who are looking, now, at ways to ensure that everyone, regardless of their immigration status, has access to health care. We support these efforts, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it makes financial sense. A greater California is possible when all children and families are given the means to succeed.
Wendy Lazarus is Founder & Co-President of The Children’s Partnership and also represents the California Children’s Health Coverage Coalition, which includes Children Now, Children’s Defense Fund-California, United Ways of California, California Coverage & Health Initiatives, and PICO-California.