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Immigrants and Health Insurance

Shannon McConville November 18, 2015

California has made major strides in reducing the number of state residents without health insurance coverage. With the state’s Medicaid expansion and the creation of Covered California under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the percentage of Californians without insurance dropped nearly 5 percentage points in 2014—the first year of ACA implementation. Declines occurred across all racial and ethnic groups, with Latinos registering the largest drop at 9 percentage points. Nevertheless, Latinos continue to experience the highest uninsured rate, in part because the ACA coverage expansions exclude California’s estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants.

But there is more to the story of insurance coverage and California’s immigrants: we also observe large declines in the uninsured rate among all noncitizens, a group that includes an estimated 2.6 million people who are legally residing in the state (with green cards, temporary visas, work visas, etc.), as well as those who are undocumented. When we look at uninsured rates across different citizenship categories, we see the drop was larger among noncitizens than among US-born and naturalized citizens—noncitizens had nearly a nine percentage point decline in their uninsured rate.

Noncitizens who legally reside in the state have access to ACA coverage expansions either through the Medi-Cal program—if their household income is below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, about $33,500 for a family of four—or through Covered California, with financial assistance available to help pay for coverage. Still, about 35% of California’s more than five million noncitizen residents currently lack comprehensive health insurance coverage—most are likely to be undocumented, with limited sources for affordable insurance coverage.

Undocumented residents sometimes have private health insurance, most often through their employers. National estimates suggest between 30–40% of undocumented immigrants have coverage. This number could grow if federal immigration reforms are implemented, by providing undocumented immigrants who qualify (between 1.1 and 1.3 million in California) with work permits and better job opportunities that could offer increased access to employment-based insurance.

Along with pending federal action on immigration reform, state legislative proposals are also focusing on expanding affordable insurance coverage options to the undocumented. In our new report, we discuss these potential options and provide new regional estimates of the undocumented population in California by income thresholds to assist policymakers in planning for potential coverage expansions to this group.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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