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The State

Use of Mexican ID Cards OKd by Blue Cross

Insurer says many immigrants lack coverage due to their illegal status. County official questions how many can afford it.

October 04, 2003|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

Blue Cross of California, the state's largest insurer, announced Friday that identification cards issued by the Mexican General Consulate will be sufficient identification for Mexican nationals who apply for health insurance.

The move is a sign of the growing importance of immigrant consumers and the growing number of uninsured people.

"We recognize the work and effort that the Mexican community puts forth each day and its need to have a health insurance plan that provides protection and peace of mind to them and their families," said Patricia Vargas-Stolze, manager for Blue Cross of California. Blue Cross insures about 7 million people in the state.

The Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles issues roughly 800 cards each week, known as matriculas consulares, which provide a means of identification for undocumented immigrants. Many of those people, Blue Cross officials said, can afford to buy health insurance, but until now, many have lacked access to plans because of their illegal status.

Now accepted by 155 banks nationwide, the card has helped thousands of illegal immigrants to purchase cars and homes and also to establish credit histories. It is these consumers that Blue Cross officials said they are targeting.

To some critics of illegal immigration, the move is another step toward legitimizing a population that should not be in the U.S.

"As long as illegal immigrants are in the country, it's certainly preferable they cover the social costs they incur, rather than socking it to the taxpayer," said David Ray of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based think tank that calls for a moratorium on all immigration. "But when you take in-state tuition for illegal aliens, driver's licenses for illegal aliens, the matricula card and all together, these spell benefits for people who are in the country in violation of federal immigration laws," Ray said.

To many health-care advocates, Blue Cross' acceptance of the Mexican identification card is a move in the right direction, but whether it results in thousands of newly insured people remains to be seen.

"Anything that allows people who are here to work and live the normal existence that the rest of us enjoy is good," said E. Richard Brown, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. "The problem is, it's not going to help very many immigrants get health insurance, because those who would be most likely to be eligible under that plan, probably would have a hard time affording the cost of privately purchased insurance."

Blue Cross officials said Friday that one benefit of the new policy would be to reduce the burden on counties such as Los Angeles, which last year spent an estimated $340 million treating uninsured, undocumented immigrants.

Blue Cross is offering plans that range from a low of $48 a month, with a $1,000 deductible, to $1,094 a month, depending on age and number of family members. But Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, director of the county's Department of Health Services, said that may be too expensive for those who rely on the county for care. Income data suggest "we won't have huge numbers of people who will be able to afford" to buy insurance, he said.

About one county patient out of six makes 200% of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four amounts to $36,800, Garthwaite said.

The majority of patients treated in county facilities, particularly in emergency rooms, have a maximum family monthly income of $499. Also, the department estimates that the total uninsured population earning 200% of the federal poverty level actually hovers between 712,000 and 826,000 people.

Health Net of California actually became the first insurance company in the United States to accept the matricula consular. It made the move in June. "Open enrollment is just now starting, so we'll have a better idea of how many people are using the cards after Jan. 1," said Health Net spokesman Brad Kieffer. "But the most positive reception has been in the urban cores -- San Diego, the Bay Area and Los Angeles -- where there are a higher concentration of Latinos."

At the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles on Friday, Ambassador Martha I. Lara said use of the identification card to access health insurance is the next logical step in the consulate's efforts to help Mexicans living in the U.S. to assimilate into the mainstream. When the card was first issued in November 2001, the Mexican government worked to have it accepted by U.S. law enforcement and immigration officials. With their support, the consulate next sought its acceptance by banks and other financial institutions. This year, the consulate has been focused on health care, Lara said.

"We know there are people who keep opposing immigrants and that those people are not going to disappear," she said. "But I think this country is a capitalist country, and if you have the money to buy health care, then you should be able to do it."

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