California County Revives Health Care for Undocumented Immigrants

by | June 18, 2015

By Brad Branan

Sacramento County supervisors on Tuesday approved health care for undocumented immigrants and other new social service programs as part of the county budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Supervisors voted 5-0 for the $3.7 billion budget, capping two days of hearings that were a dramatic departure from past years, when deep funding cuts pitted department heads against one another over scarce dollars. This year's budget hearings, supervisors and department heads said, were marked by cooperation and innovation.

A major reason was an expected 4 percent increase in discretionary revenue. Supervisors approved funding for additional mental health services, programs aimed at reducing violent deaths of young black people and a trial program that will provide health insurance to 3,000 undocumented immigrants.

The board's chambers were full and adjacent rooms with TV monitors were also crowded with more than 300 people, most of whom gathered in support of the violence reduction or immigrant health care programs. Advocates for the violence reduction effort wore yellow T-shirts and health care advocates wore black T-shirts.

Board chair Phil Serna called the budget historic, a term advocates and other county officials used to describe the county's investment in new programs.

Sacramento was one of a handful of counties in the state that once provided health care to undocumented immigrants, all of which stopped during the recession, Serna said. Sacramento County appears to be the first in California to restore its health care for undocumented immigrants.

Supervisors budgeted more than $5 million for the health care program and expect local hospitals to contribute more than a $1 million worth of services.

"The whole state of California is watching," said Serna.

Health and Human Services Director Sherri Z. Heller said the funding will not cover the need for health care among the county's undocumented immigrants. However, she said the county needs a trial period to see what kind of system will work best.

The program will serve undocumented immigrants who are ages 19-64. Children are able to get some health services from other programs, and elderly care is far too expensive, Heller said.

The program will start next month and focus on prevention and primary care. It will provide limited specialty care and pharmacy services, she said.

The county will also increase spending for mental health care by $13.4 million to try to reduce the spiraling cost of hospitalizing the mentally ill. The money will pay for three 15-bed crisis centers and expand the county's existing crisis stabilization center.

Officials at private psychiatric facilities who have been pressing the county for change praised the supervisors for the funding Tuesday. The county has been spending too much money on inpatient, psychiatric care, they have said.

Funding to reduce black youth deaths received the most attention Tuesday, with more than 200 people crowding the county's administrative building.

"The sheer magnitude of the number of community members present today shows that in Sacramento, black lives matter," said Chet Hewitt, Sierra Health Foundation president and CEO and co-chair of the Steering Committee on Reduction of African American Child Deaths.

Serna formed the committee several years ago after another county committee reported that the death rate for black youth is twice that of other Sacramento County children.

The county will spend more than $6 million on a variety of programs, which will also receive more than $4 million in funding from First 5 Sacramento. The programs will focus on the leading causes of death for black children, including third-party homicides, child abuse and perinatal conditions. The programs will be targeted toward neighborhoods with high death rates.

(c)2015 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)