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Early Ed and Health Access Get The Gold in Sacramento

While some of us were watching the excitement mount during the Sochi Olympics these past two weeks, California policymakers were doing some exciting things in Sacramento.

As the deadline for new bills to be introduced approached, Senator Carol Liu introduced the California Strong Start Program, a companion to pro Tem Senator Darrell Steinberg’s Kindergarten Readiness Act. Both are premised on the growing body of research that shows how important quality early learning experiences are to a child’s long-term chances of success. The specifics of Senator Liu’s bill aren’t clear yet, but its stated goals are to revamp the state’s General Child Care Program for infants and toddlers. Senator Steinberg’s bill would offer a year of education for all four-year-olds in the state, and has been gaining steam. Together these bills would substantially increase access to quality learning in California, which is sorely lacking now.

In other legislative news, Senator Ricardo Lara introduced the Health for All act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to access health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act. Currently, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for Medi-Cal coverage, and may not purchase health insurance through Covered California, even at full price. Without legislative action, almost a million Californians will remain uninsured because of their immigration status, including 50,000 children.

Senator Lara’s proposal is well timed. Public opinion polls show increasing acceptance of undocumented immigrants by Californians. Governor Brown signed major pieces of legislation in the past year that indicate he is sensitive to undocumented immigrants’ needs and wants to improve their quality of life. Undocumented immigrants are largely Latino, and represent a critical demographic for California’s future.

Absent any statewide legislation, counties are addressing the problem one by one. For example, San Francisco will continue its historic Healthy San Francisco program but only for undocumented immigrants who have no other access to insurance. In an only-in-San Francisco-moment, none of the Board of Supervisors has objected to spending county dollars on health access for this group. Some are objecting, however, to ending the program for those who now qualify for coverage through Covered California. They argue that it is unfair that some San Franciscans who were previously eligible for free health access through the county’s indigent care program may now face a premium from Covered California, though the premium will be subsidized in most cases.

In other counties, this debate is not happening at all. While an undocumented mother will be able to access affordable health care in San Francisco, the same may not be true for a similar mom in Fresno. Senator Lara’s bill asks California to really take a position on health care for all.

Speaking of expanded access to health insurance, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need to integrate public benefit programs with Covered California. Since then, the Department of Health Care Services rolled out “Express Lane” enrollment for people on CalFresh (what we used to call Food Stamps). This means that uninsured people receiving CalFresh benefits will be enrolled into Medi-Cal without having to submit an application. It sounds like an obvious solution, but this is a big deal for 153,000 children and 550,000 adults who will likely benefit from this rule change – and it is a sign that government is getting smarter, more efficient, and more helpful.

On that celebratory note, Covered California has declared a significant victory: over 1.6 million Californians have signed up for health insurance since Covered California’s web site went live in October, meeting its overall target for this open enrollment period with six weeks to go. A gold medal!

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