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What ACA health coverage eligibility means for DACA recipients

Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, will be eligible for health care under the Affordable Care Act starting in November. In making the announcement earlier this month, the Biden administration said the rule will “give DACA recipients the peace of mind and opportunity that every American deserves.”

There are an estimated 600,000 DACA recipients, also known as "Dreamers," in the U.S. The White House says this change could impact about 100,000 of them.

Mario Montoya, research analyst and coalition consultant with Aliento, a Phoenix-based organization helping undocumented populations, talked more about the impact with The Show.

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: Mario, what went through your mind when President [Joe] Biden announced DACA recipients would be eligible for health insurance under the ACA?

MARIO MONTOYA: Yeah, so I'm a DACA recipient myself. So, I think it's a great step forward. I was just happy to hear that individuals like myself, I have a lot of family members that are DACA recipients as well as friends here in Arizona. So, just knowing that they will have that option to seek out health care if they need it, that might be more affordable for them. It made me happy, I think it's a great step forward. I personally have the belief that it's crucial to be able to take care of your health, and I really think that it it's, in a sense, it's a human basic necessity. 

BRODIE: Have you had times in your life where you've not had health insurance? 

MONTOYA: Oh, yes. So I remember, pretty much I was undocumented through until I was about 15. Once I, the DACA program was announced, and my parents at this time, were also undocumented. So, I'm sure a lot of people will kind of already confused with the health insurances, as it can be very confusing, especially if you don't know about it. But even my parents didn't really necessarily, were able to point me into the right direction. So, when I first got my job working at a rental car place, I remember seeing like the pages that they gave you about employment benefits and, and health insurance. Since I had DACA at that time, I was eligible for employment-based health care. But like, I had no clue what any of this stuff meant, or like, necessarily how to go about it. So, I have had segments where I did have employment health insurance, but at times when I was maybe in between jobs, or when, currently, right now I'm a contractor. So if if you don't have that employment, base health insurance, pretty much you're uninsured, right? Unless you get your private health insurance, which could be pretty steep. So there has been times even something as simple as like, getting my physical was something that, my yearly check, my yearly physical was something that I kind of worried about doing, because I didn't know what the out-of-pocket costs would be. So, it's worrisome because you get put in a position at times where you don't necessarily want to get the help that you might need, because of the cost associated to that help that you require. 

BRODIE: I'm curious about the employment part of this, because one of the benefits of DACA for recipients is that they can work which, at least for some jobs, allows those those individuals to have insurance. Do you have a sense of how many folks we might be talking about who don't currently have insurance? Who might be able to get it because they don't get it through their, their employer? Or maybe they're students who might be able to get it with the Affordable Care Act?

MONTOYA: Yeah. So as far as exact numbers, it could be kind of hard to get it just because people are always changing jobs. Maybe they're moving and they're stuck in that weird limbo place where they're about to move. I do know, there was a forward study in 2022 that estimated about 22,000 DACA recipients that are currently live here, in our state of Arizona, out of those 22,000, 85% were in the labor force, right? Out of those 85%, we don't necessarily know if all of them received that employment-based, provided health care service. So, if we look at the 15% that are currently maybe not in the workforce, that would be around 3,300 individuals that would benefit from this right away if they're currently not employed, or have the employment health care insurance. But again, keep in mind that we don't know exactly if all those people in the in the labor force have that health care through their employment. 

BRODIE: Right. So I'm curious about your experience, you know, when you got a job, you're able to, you're eligible for health insurance, but I mean, you're kind of flummoxed, like how to actually sign up for it and what to do with it. What needs to happen for DACA recipients who don't have insurance now, who will become eligible for the ACA to actually be able to sign up for it and know what they're getting and know what they need and make the best choice for them?

MONTOYA: Yeah, so I believe Nov. 1 is going to be the date that DACA recipients are going to be able to go to the health care website and try and see what kind of plans they might, might benefit them for them to get. So, I think for them, it's going to be crucial knowing exactly that date, and kind of learning exactly what each program entails. But I think from a governmental standpoint, what I would like to see is seeing, trying to see awareness and education campaigns, which will be critical to target this population that just became eligible. And I don't think it would just be beneficial for DACA recipients. I think we can do this at a overall state level to ensure that every resident in Arizona know that this is an opportunity that they have that might help them with their health. 

BRODIE: Do you get the sense that there's any reluctance on the part of DACA recipients to sign up with the marketplace under the ACA?

MONTOYA: Yeah, so like I mentioned before, I think a lot of that reluctance is coming from a place of just not knowing. Like, if you're a DACA recipient, you were brought here when you were a child. So, a lot of that population, their parents still might be undocumented. So, if your parents themselves are not necessarily too familiar with the process of health insurance, you're already a step behind where you can't ask someone that you immediately trust, right? So, it's difficult for them to kind of understand that, "hey, now I'm eligible," and then like, "oh, well, what does this really mean?" Because their family, most of their family members, or even maybe friends didn't necessarily go through it, and unfortunately, it's not something that you really learned in the schools right now.

BRODIE: I've got to ask about the future of DACA. Because it's still, in many ways, very much up in the air. So, I wonder if, as you say, this is a good a good step. It sounds like a victory for DACA recipients that they'll be eligible for health care under the ACA, but at the same time, it doesn't seem like a permanent victory, perhaps. 

MONTOYA: Yeah, so, keep in mind that the DACA case to decide if the program itself is law for constitutional, it's still being argued in the courts. So, as this will allow DACA recipients to have that access — that crucial access — to qualified health plans through the Affordable Care Act, it's important to remember that if the program is found unconstitutional, or it's ended in the courts, that will be removed for DACA recipients. So, while it is a good step forward, it's still crucial for Congress to act and find a solution for the DACA recipients that have been living here in our state and our country and have been working and giving back to their community. So, it's still on limbo with the program itself, technically, right.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.