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Community Workers Fan Out to Persuade Immigrant Seniors to Get Covered

For three years, Bertha Embriz of San Francisco has gone without health insurance, skipping annual wellness exams and recently tolerating a broken molar by trying not to chew with it. As an immigrant without legal status, the 58-year-old unpaid caregiver knew that California’s Medicaid program was closed to her.

That changed in May, when California expanded Medi-Cal — its Medicaid program for residents with low incomes — to adults 50 and older, regardless of immigration status. The problem was that Embriz didn’t realize she would be eligible until she attended a community meeting in San Francisco.

“I’d heard that they were giving full Medi-Cal to people over 50, but I didn’t know that you didn’t have to be” in the country legally, said Embriz, who is waiting for her application to be processed. “Thank God I haven’t had any emergencies.”

As of October, the most recent month for which data is available, more than 300,000 older immigrant adults who lack legal residency had enrolled in full Medi-Cal benefits, 30 percent more than the state’s original projection. State health officials, who had based their estimate on the number of people enrolled in a limited form of Medi-Cal that covers only emergency medical services, don’t know how many additional older Californians are eligible, said Tony Cava, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health Care Services.

Now, some counties have hired a small army of community workers and health educators to enroll as many immigrant seniors as they can find. Workers visit senior centers, churches, English-language classes, immigration offices, markets, and community events, hoping to encounter people like Embriz unaware of their newfound eligibility.

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