“This issue is one of many reasons Beto believes that comprehensive immigration reform must be a top priority,” Aleigha Cavalier, his national press secretary, said in a statement. “Because our laws rightly require hospitals to provide care to everyone, the cost of care for uninsured individuals is currently shifted onto other consumers. Therefore, it is in everyone’s interest to provide a pathway for obtaining insurance, whether through the ACA, a new universal healthcare program, or on the private market.”
The rub for both health-care and immigration advocacy groups seems to be the matter of public subsidies. What has become the more centrist position—of allowing undocumented people to purchase coverage on their own—generates mixed feelings: The advocates consider it a valuable gesture, but little more than that, because so few could afford health coverage without assistance.
Wright, for instance, says that “any step toward inclusion is a positive one.” But he notes that when California offered its coverage proposal to the Obama administration, his group estimated that probably fewer than 30,000 of the estimated 1.5 to 2 million uninsured undocumented immigrants in California could afford to buy coverage.
Rodriguez stressed the limited practical impact of the position Biden and Bennet are endorsing now. “If you don’t have subsidies, there is no affordability to get into the system,” he says. “Symbolism these days is still important. The fact that all the candidates raised their hands [to cover the undocumented], that’s not insignificant. But what would be meaningful is proposals that would enable families [to] afford coverage.”
California pushed the debate into another front this week. Governor Gavin Newsom signed a budget that makes California the first state to cover undocumented young adults ages 19 to 26 under its Medicaid program; the state had already extended eligibility to undocumented children under 18 and to pregnant women.
Wright noted that the expansion was, from a cost perspective, a relatively small component of a much larger package, one that focused on providing middle-class families more financial help to afford health care. That linkage, he argues, is the key to winning public acceptance for greater aid to the undocumented.
“There will always be a group of folks who are animated by the immigration issue and that just might be something they are opposed to, period,” he said, basing his analysis on focus groups and polls his group has conducted in California. “But if they see an effort to help people broadly, most people don’t begrudge others being helped as part of that process.”
With either modest steps—or big leaps—toward providing undocumented immigrants health coverage, that may be exactly the wager Democrats are placing in 2020.
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