Thousands of children in California could be excluded from affordable health care coverage because their parents are undocumented, a new study says.

The state’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which will go into effect in 2014, provides health insurance to millions of uninsured families in California. But some programs exclude children whose parents are undocumented – leaving 20 percent of uninsured children without any coverage, said researchers from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

The center said confusing and overarching rules in the state’s health care reform will prevent thousands of undocumented children from applying for coverage.

"Health care reform restrictions raise some very unpleasant questions about our willingness as a society to let children go without care," said the study's lead author, Ninez Ponce, a faculty associate with the center and an associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Health. "And confusion over the rules may result in even eligible children being cut off from coverage."

According to the researchers, about 30,000 undocumented immigrants will be barred from participating in a health care plan, called Health Benefit Exchange, for low-income families.

Another 150,000 children will not be allowed from another part of the program, Medi-Cal, because they are undocumented and have lived in the United States less than five years. Still another 40,000 U.S. citizens, researchers say, may not apply because their undocumented parents don’t qualify – and they may think they are excluded as well.

"It is neither prudent nor fair to lock immigrants out of purchasing coverage through the exchange," said Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment, which funded the study along with The California Wellness Foundation. "The politicization of health care access for immigrants is unsound policy. Everyone needs access, and we know people generally have better access to preventive care when they have health coverage. This helps prevent costly health conditions."

Researchers even cast doubt that those who do qualify will ever get coverage because of the state’s ongoing budget drama – that could put a damper on health care funding.  

"Our health care system works best when everyone has access to — and utilizes — ongoing preventive care that keeps simple problems from turning into costly emergencies," said Gary L. Yates, president and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation. "To do otherwise, presents a public health risk."

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