Legislators Push Health Care Initiative for Undocumented Immigrants  

Asse mblywoman Catalina Cruz with Theo Oshiro from Make the Road. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

James García has lived in New York for two years and, although he has a steady job working as a busboy in a restaurant, he admits that he is financially affected every time he needs medical attention to treat his asthma, which he has suffered since his youth.

“Here, my asthma has gotten a bit worse because, due to my immigration status, I cannot have health insurance. When I have to see a doctor, I go to Plaza del Sol (a city-funded community clinic in Corona). I pay $25 per visit and about $80 per month for medications, but I am often short and it affects my ability to pay the rent,” said García, born in Colombia.

(…) Current laws prevent undocumented people from buying private health insurance at full price in the state’s marketplace. They are not eligible for tax credits that cover premiums or reduced co-pay either. While Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this year that he will invest $100 million in a program called NYC Care, it will start in the Bronx in the summer and will only be available in the five boroughs by 2021. The program will offer comprehensive and affordable coverage to over 600,000 uninsured New Yorkers. Until then, however, thousands of immigrants like García will continue to go without medical protection.

To tackle this lack of access to insurance, a new bill has been introduced in Albany that seeks to ensure that the estimated 1 million undocumented people in New York State have a right to apply for this low-cost medical benefit without resorting to emergency funding or the other limited programs currently available to this community.

This week, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and State Senator Julia Salazar introduced S.4578 and A.6791, which, if passed, will require the New York State Health Benefit Exchange to provide access to medical insurance to undocumented immigrants who can afford to pay without the help of state or federal subsidies.

“Providing access to medical care for undocumented immigrants through the New York State Health Benefit Exchange is fiscally sensible and in the best interest of safety and public health,” said Assemblywoman Cruz, who is a member of the Legislature’s Committee on Children and Families. She also defended the humanitarian aspect of this right. “Because acquiring health insurance is illegal for undocumented immigrants, most of them are unable to receive the most basic preventive health services.”

(…) “Allowing undocumented immigrants to buy health insurance provides them with affordable access to preventive health care, relieves overcrowding in emergency rooms, and lowers the cost of health insurance premiums thanks to the increased number of individuals participating in the market. In other words, it benefits everyone,” said the Colombian-born legislator.

Cruz added that, currently, undocumented people can only benefit from emergency plans offered by hospitals through Medicaid and other limited city programs that allow people who have a special card to visit specific medical centers, such Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. Still, these users do not have full coverage on services or medication or reduced co-pay premiums, and cannot go to all specialists.

(…) “Allowing undocumented residents to fully participate in our society is crucial to our city and our state if we want to honor the title of sanctuary state. Right now, we are falling short,” said Senator Salazar, chair of the Senate’s Women’s Issues Committee in Albany.

(…) James García is one of the potential beneficiaries of the new law. “If New York authorizes us to have health insurance paid by ourselves, that would help me a lot, as I would not only save money on doctor expenses but I would also be able to control my asthma permanently instead of constantly having to go for check-ups and have the doctors write up a discount for my medication,” he said.

Mexican-born Leocadia Flores had to stay in a hospital in Astoria in October. She had been taken to the emergency room after suddenly fainting in the street as she headed to the laundromat where she works, and said to have gone through moments of anguish when a bill for more than $40,000 in medical expenses arrived in the mail.

“If I had insurance, they would pay for that. But without insurance, you are unprotected. Thank God that the people at Make the Road helped me apply for an emergency insurance that covered those expenses,” said Flores, who still ended up broke after paying for part of the bill.

Emergency Medicaid

Make the Road New York Deputy Director Theo Oshiro, who is oversees the organization’s health advocacy services, explained that the insurance Flores was able to obtain is called Emergency Medicaid. It is the only one that members of the undocumented community are allowed to apply for, and it is limited to emergencies. The activist added that Cruz and Salazar’s bill would change the lives of thousands of families. This is what Make the Road has already done for over 600 of them, helping them connect to health services at hospitals or local clinics providing care regardless of legal status.

“This bill is a big step forward, particularly now when we all know that the immigrant community is under attack for many reasons at the federal level. It is also concrete step towards better access to health for the immigrant community and would also help prevent emergencies, as people will be able to make more frequent visits to doctors and have chronic diseases detected or make sure they are healthy,” said the activist. “The reality today is that many immigrants do not go to the doctor because they lack insurance, and end up going to the emergency room when their situation is more serious.”

(…) “This proposed piece of legislation is an important step in the right direction to reducing discrimination against undocumented immigrant communities regarding health insurance,” said Steve Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. (…)

Javier Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, said that allowing undocumented immigrants to buy affordable, high quality health insurance is a priority, but also urged the state to invest in resources to prevent poor New Yorkers from being left without the benefit. (…)

“In addition to allowing immigrants to have access to the health insurance marketplace, the state needs to come up with $532 million to create an Essential Plan funded by the state to cover all New Yorkers with earnings 200 percent below the poverty line, many of whom are excluded due to their immigration status,” said Valdés.

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