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In California, Some Deferred Action Youth Qualify for Health Care

Oct 1, 2013

Last summer, President Obama announced a new policy, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It allows certain immigrant youth to remain in the country and obtain a work permit, without fear of deportation.

“This is a temporary stop-gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely, while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven and patriotic young people,” Obama said, when he announced the program in June 2012.

Under the Deferred Action policy, some young people would have qualified for new health care options under the Affordable Care Act. That is, until the Obama administration announced last August a new federal policy that excluded these youth from participating in the expanded Medicaid program, or purchasing insurance on the state exchanges.

“It really doesn’t make any sense,” says Alvaro Huerta, with the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. “They are excluding a population of very young, healthy individuals – generally – from the insurance pool, and that makes it more expensive for the rest of us, not to have those folks included.”

Here in California, though, there’s a wrinkle in the law and it dates back more than a decade. The 1996 federal welfare reform law barred lawfully present immigrants, who have been here for less than five years, from receiving any public benefits, from food stamps to health insurance.

The Golden State, though, took a different approach.

“We have made a policy that for individuals that meet certain requirements, if they are here as legal immigrants, but they are under the five-year bar, we have awarded full-scope services, we pay for it with state general funds, some services can claim federal funds,” explains Rene Mollow, deputy director of health care benefits and eligibility for the state Department of Health Care Services.

Essentially, that means that some young Californians who qualify for Deferred Action are already eligible for Medi-Cal and the Children’s Health Insurance Program - so long as it’s funded by the state, and not the federal government.

And even more will be eligible for expanded Medi-Cal in 2014, says Ron Coleman with the California Immigrant Policy Center. But, he says, they still can’t buy insurance through the state exchange, called Covered California, because it includes federal subsidies and tax credits.

“They are eligible for Medi-Cal now, if they’re blind or disabled, and as part of the newly eligible population that will get coverage starting in January, if they are single, childless adults up to 138% of the federal poverty level, they will also qualify for Medi-Cal,” Coleman says.

That’s good news for Deferred Action youth. But Luis Ojeda, with California Youth Immigrant Justice Alliance, says many of them don’t know about this opportunity. Ojeda, who’s 23, is from Colima, Mexico and now lives in Fresno. He was approved for Deferred Action status in May. 

"We haven't take advantage of this opportunity, simply because of lack of knowledge" - Luis Ojeda

“We’ve been told that Obamacare doesn’t apply to us, and we still won’t have access to health insurance,” Ojeda says. “I think part of the reason we’re uninsured, is because we haven’t take advantage of this opportunity, simply because of lack of knowledge.”

As an advocate for the immigrant community, Ojeda says he’s focused on pushing for immigration reform, the Trust Act, and driver’s licenses. But he says it’s important to get the word out about the health insurance benefits available to youth with Deferred Action status.

“I think there’s a lot of advocacy work that goes on in our community, in terms of trying to improve the well-being of our community, but it’s important to understand that in order for us to do that, we really need to take care of ourselves,” he says.

Coleman, with the California Immigrant Policy Center, agrees there needs to be more outreach to these youth.

“I do think that in California, a lot of these eligible categories that had been preserved are not known to a lot of people, and there will need to be a lot of community education for Deferred Action approved individuals to sign up for Medi-Cal, and get the access they need,” he says.

As Obamacare enrollment begins today, Mollow, with the Department of Health Care Services, encourages everyone who needs health care services to apply for insurance. She emphasizes that the information collected is only used to determine eligibility.

This story was first reported by New America Media.