A group of 35 California counties have agreed to provide basic health care to people who are in the United States illegally.
The decision was made Thursday by the governing panel of the County Medical Services Program, which pools resources of the mostly rural and sparsely populated counties to provide healthservices to the poor. The counties include Yolo, Sonoma and Marin in the north and Imperial near the southern border with Mexico.
The program could begin next year, and several thousand people are expected to enroll.
"Frankly, it's just the right thing to do," Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor told the Los Angeles Times. "For us to have an underclass that is left out is unconscionable."
Opening the low-cost health care program to immigrants is important to prevent communicable diseases from spreading and to reduce the costly practice of people using the emergency room for routine care, Saylor said.
Immigrants who are in the state illegally now comprise the single biggest group of California's uninsured. They are ineligible for coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act or through the Covered California state health exchange.
The decision means that 47 out of California's 58 counties — including massive Los Angeles County — now have promised to provide low-cost medical care coverage to the eligible regardless of their immigration status. Several previously had barred immigrants from obtaining the services in 2009 during the recession.
The vote of the County Medical Services Program's board means that people who don't qualify for other government-subsidized health care coverage can get doctor visits and about $1,000 worth of prescription drugs, regardless of their immigration status, the Sacramento Bee reported.
The board also approved other changes, including raising the income limit for eligibility. The changes are expected to cost $6 million to $9 million over the next two years.
Although its budget was strained in the past, the County Medical Services Program currently has about $225 million in reserves, the Bee said.
An estimated 2.7 million people are living in California illegally, and immigration has become a hot topic this year. On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a state budget that expands state-subsidized Medi-Cal coverage to low-income children regardless of their legal status beginning next May.
The move could cost taxpayers up to $132 million annually once fully implemented.