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Blog Post · June 1, 2015

Health Insurance for the Undocumented

California continues to have at least 3 million uninsured residents, even after the coverage gains from the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Estimates suggest that between 1 million and 1.5 million of them are undocumented immigrants who are not eligible for federally subsidized coverage.

But there may be two opportunities for California’s undocumented population to gain access to coverage – depending on the legislature, governor, and courts. We estimate that as many as half of the state’s undocumented immigrants have incomes that are low enough to qualify for Medi-Cal coverage—with some variation across regions. To qualify for Medi-Cal, household income must be below 138% of the federal poverty level (about $16,000 for a single person or about $28,000 for a family of 3). Those with higher incomes may gain access to insurance through a state exchange.

First, the governor’s recently released proposal for the state budget includes funding to provide full Medi-Cal coverage to low-income undocumented immigrants who register for the federal Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program, which offers protected status to undocumented immigrants who have resided continuously in the U.S. for the past five years and are parents of children who are either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. This proposal is dependent on DAPA surviving current legal challenges.

Second, the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved state legislation that proposes to expand insurance coverage options to undocumented immigrants not eligible for DAPA. The bill (SB 4) would extend Medi-Cal to low-income undocumented immigrants under age 19. The number of adults who are eligible would depend on the state budget. The bill also includes provisions to allow those with higher incomes to purchase coverage through a state-based insurance exchange.

How many undocumented immigrants might be affected by these actions? Estimating the number is not straightforward. To help in the policy and planning process, we have recently updated our county estimates of undocumented immigrants for 2013 using zip code level tax records (filed with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, or ITINs) and the analytic methods we have used in past work. We extend our earlier analysis to estimate how many undocumented immigrants might be eligible for insurance coverage based on family income for the pricing regions used by Covered California. To do this, we rely on information available from tax filings—we estimate income levels from adjusted gross income groupings and family size from tax filing status and the use of the federal child tax credit. PPIC expects to publish more results based on these analyses in the near future.

Statewide, our preliminary estimates indicate that just over half of undocumented immigrants (51%) are likely to be under the 138% poverty threshold used for Medi-Cal income eligibility. This share varies widely across regions. Nearly 60% in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley have incomes below the 138% threshold. Most Bay Area counties have lower shares below this threshold—from 36% in Santa Clara County to 44% in Contra Costa County. These findings are generally consistent with other work that uses different methods to profile California’s undocumented immigrants (MPI (2014), Marcelli and Pastor (2014), Warren (2015)).

We also estimate shares, by region, of undocumented immigrants that fall between 138% and 400% of the federal poverty level, the income range used by Covered California for its current enrollees to receive premium subsidies. Across most regions, between 40% and 60% of the undocumented population falls within this range, potentially making them eligible to purchase coverage through a state insurance marketplace.

Finally, about 85,000 undocumented have incomes above 400% of the federal poverty level – with most residing either in Bay Area counties or the coastal Southern California counties of Orange and San Diego.

Regional differences in health plans, provider capacity, and insurance costs make information on the size and distribution of the state’s undocumented population by income level crucial to planning effectively for coverage expansions. We expect to contribute regularly to the discussion as these planning efforts unfold.

Table source: Author’s analysis of tax data.
Table note: Counts are rounded to the nearest 500 and may not add to the statewide total as a result. Regions correspond to the insurance pricing regions used by Covered California, with one exception. Region 15 in the table includes all of Los Angeles County.


Affordable Care Act Covered California Health & Safety Net health insurance Medi-Cal Population undocumented immigrants