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.