Medi-Cal enrollment among immigrant kids stalls, then falls. Is fear to blame?

A sign reading 'Welcome to California'
Unauthorized immigrant children have been eligible for Medi-Cal since 2016; enrollment peaked a year later. Since then, it has been flat or fallen. (Getty/ChrisBoswell)

As California prepares to expand Medicaid coverage to young adults here illegally, the number of undocumented immigrant children in the program is slowly declining, new state data show.

Unauthorized immigrant children have been eligible for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income residents, since May 2016, and their enrollment peaked nearly a year later at 134,374, according to the data from the state Department of Health Care Services.

Since then, enrollment has stayed mostly flat or fallen. Last February, the latest month for which data are available, 127,845 undocumented immigrant children through age 18 were enrolled in Medi-Cal, down about 5% from the April 2017 peak.

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This drop mirrors statewide and national trends for all children enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a separate public program that some states use to cover low-income children.

From December 2017 to December 2018, overall child enrollment in both programs dropped 2.2% nationally and 3% in California, according to a recent report from Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute.

RELATED: A California plan to cover immigrants would divert public health dollars

Some experts attribute the enrollment drop among all children to a strong economy because more people have jobs—and access to employer-sponsored health insurance. But Medicaid researchers say there are likely other factors at play for immigrant children.

The decline in their enrollment is more likely due to a shift in migration patterns and rising fear among their families in response to anti-immigrant rhetoric and federal crackdowns on unauthorized immigrants, said Edwin Park, a health policy research professor at Georgetown University.

“It’s likely the overall hostile environment for immigrant families is playing a critical role in enrollment,” Park said. “You should have seen a continued ramp-up” in sign-ups because the program is still relatively new. California is among six states, plus the District of Columbia, that provide public health coverage for undocumented immigrant children.

Last year, California allocated $365.2 million to cover these children. Even though Medicaid is a joint state-federal program, California must pay for the expanded benefits for unauthorized immigrants itself.

Starting next year, as part of the 2019-20 state budget signed on June 27 by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state will expand Medi-Cal coverage to young adult unauthorized immigrants ages 19 through 25. Officials estimate 90,000 young adults will join in the first year.

President Donald Trump criticized California’s move and threatened to “stop it.”

“The Democrats want to treat the illegals with health care and with other things, better than they treat the citizens of our country,” Trump said on July 1.

The state Department of Health Care Services, which administers Medi-Cal, said undocumented immigrant children might be leaving the program because they age out of eligibility when they turn 19 or move out of state.

Randy Capps, director of research at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, said a shift in immigration patterns into and out of California could also affect their enrollment.

RELATED: Undocumented immigrants significantly more likely to be uninsured, KFF finds

The number of people coming into the country illegally is down, especially from Mexico, according to a Pew Research Center report released in June. That is notable in California, where Mexican nationals make up the majority of the state’s undocumented immigrant population.

The report estimates there were 4.9 million unauthorized immigrants from Mexico in the U.S. in 2017, down from 6.9 million in 2007.

“All data suggest a downward trend on illegal immigration, especially of Mexican origin,” Capps said.

In California, “with the recent economic boom, that may be accelerating because the cost of living is escalating astronomically,” he said. “Housing is becoming prohibitively expensive for undocumented immigrants in large parts of the state.”

Although an increasing number of Central American migrants have been trying to enter the U.S. at the southern border this year, most are claiming asylum and are not considered undocumented immigrants. As a result, most of those children wouldn’t qualify for Medi-Cal under this program, explained Gabrielle Lessard, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. But the rhetoric surrounding the Central American refugees has been heated, and Trump has made tough talk on immigration a centerpiece of his presidency.

RELATED: 8M children at risk of losing health, SNAP benefits under ‘public charge’ rule, study shows

Last month, Trump warned of “massive” deportation raids that would have targeted about 2,000 families—but they were postponed after he gave members of Congress time to make changes to asylum laws. He said the raids would begin after the Fourth of July.

His administration has also pursued policies targeting immigrants. For instance, last fall, the federal government introduced its “public charge” proposal, which would consider immigrants’ use of public benefit programs including Medi-Cal, CalFresh and Section 8 housing vouchers as a reason to deny lawful permanent residency—or green card status.

That proposed rule has not taken effect, and it’s not clear whether it will. If implemented, the policy would mostly affect legal immigrants, but it could also affect undocumented immigrants should they become eligible to seek legal status in the future.

In response, unauthorized immigrant families have been forgoing care, missing doctors’ appointments and asking whether they should disenroll from Medicaid coverage, health centers across California and the country have reported.

Lessard suspects that unauthorized immigrants could be pulling their children out of Medi-Cal or simply not renewing their coverage.

“This community has been so terrorized by the administration that people are afraid to show up to their appointments at health centers,” she said. “So the prospect of giving your information to the government, even though it’s the state government, is really terrifying to a lot of people.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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