CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee
About half of recent immigrants to the United States are unaware that they have diabetes, and among Mexican immigrants only about 34 percent had a glucose test taken in the past year. Immigrant women are more likely to die from cervical cancer than U.S.-born women. Many of these issues could be curtailed by regular monitoring and doctor visits. But an existing welfare reform law in about 22 states, including Washington, D.C, requires immigrants to have legal status and to wait five years before they can qualify for federal income-based benefits like Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Now Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) has introduced a bill to make legal immigrants and some undocumented immigrants immediately eligible for health insurance.
The “Health Equity And Access Under The Law For Immigrant Women And Families Act Of 2014″ would give immediate health access to legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants granted temporary deportation reprieve and work authorization under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Almost 600,000 tax-paying legal permanent residents and about 600,000 DACA recipients would likely qualify. Since 2009, “the federal government gave states the option to provide immediate coverage to lawfully residing immigrant children,” according to the Miami Herald. Twenty six states and Washington, D.C. have eliminated that waiting period for children.
“This legislation would correct the harmful restrictions that have been placed on legal immigrants’ ability to access affordable health insurance coverage,” Rep. Lujan Grisham said in a press release. “Limiting access to healthcare has a profound negative impact on families, communities and the nation as a whole and it must be corrected. These immigrants are hardworking taxpayers who deserve to be treated fairly under the system they pay into.”
Waiting for five years is especially problematic for immigrant women who could suffer from undiagnosed conditions or are unable to access prenatal care. Almost four in ten immigrant women of reproductive age are uninsured. Women with a continuous source of health care are 55 percent more likely to be screened for cervivcal cancer than those without. And only about 15 percent of Mexican immigrant women, a demographic that comprises the largest female immigrant group in the U.S., are enrolled in a public health program.
Some states already allow immigrant children and pregnant women to qualify for limited health coverage — California’s Medi-Cal program authorizes coverage for “citizens and certain lawfully present immigrants” like low-income DACA recipients. And studies show that people who receive quality health care and preventative services early on in life have greater health benefits and will likely pay lower health care costs in their twilight years. What’s more, states that don’t participate in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion could cost public safety net hospitals more than $50 billion by 2019, since “uninsured and under-insured Americans cannot afford to compensate hospitals for the care they receive — and that shortfall is ultimately shifted onto the American taxpayer.”