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Advocates urging immigrant parents to sign up children for Medi-Cal

Children in the U.S. illegally may be eligible for Medi-Cal health coverage under a new state law.
Children in the U.S. illegally may be eligible for Medi-Cal health coverage under a new state law.
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An effort is underway to get the word out that thousands of California kids without legal status will become eligible in less than two weeks for Medi-Cal health coverage under a new state law.

About 170,000 children and teens are expected to qualify for coverage when Medi-Cal, California's version of Medicaid, is expanded on May 16. California is the first state in the nation to extend coverage to children in the U.S. illegally. 

The expansion will cost an estimated $40 million the first year and about $132 million annually in the future, according to Health Care Services, which oversees Medi-Cal.

The challenge now is getting parents to sign up their children, said Sonya Vasquez with Community Health Councils, a health education and policy group in South Los Angeles. Vasquez is helping to organize a community outreach forum in Huntington Park next Saturday where parents can get information about enrollment.

“Often times this population is scared to seek out public services because of the idea that they might be deported, or get reported," she said. “And so [we're] just making sure that people understand their information is private. It won’t go anywhere expect to determine their eligibility for the program.”

The new legislation expands state-subsidized coverage to low-income youths under 19 who qualify for the program, regardless of their residency status. The income of a family of four could not exceed about $64,000 a year, for example, in order for a child to qualify.

Covered California officials, meanwhile, are looking into a way that the state might be able to offer health insurance coverage to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally but barred from obtaining coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Critics of the expanded Medi-Cal program said it is too expensive and will allow families here illegally to set down deeper roots in the U.S.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, who authored the bill, has said many of those without legal status contribute to the economy by working and paying taxes.

Lara is scheduled to visit local clinics this week to promote enrollment; he'll be at a clinic in downtown Los Angeles on Friday and in Orange County on Saturday.

"Our message is pretty clear," said Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Lara. "It's that full-scope benefits will be available to low-income, undocumented California children on May 16."

Melgar said parents who have questions can contact their local community clinic for assistance.

For more information about Medi-Cal, families can go to the California Department of Health Care Services website.