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Immigration Advocates Push for Health Care Benefits in Overhaul

By Dena Bunis, CQ HealthBeat Managing Editor

March 7, 2013 -- With the first drafts of an immigration overhaul expected to be released this month or next, hundreds of civil rights, health, labor, and religious groups are asking the president and members of Congress to include health care coverage in any legislative package.

"This is a widely diverse coalition of organizations that are interested in assuring that our communities are healthy and strong and thriving," Jenny Rejeske of the National Immigration Law Center said last week.

Her group has taken the lead in pushing for those who are granted any type of legal status under an immigration overhaul to be allowed to buy health insurance through the marketplaces created under the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152). The center was among the 360 groups that sent an open letter to President Barack Obama and lawmakers asking them to include access to health care benefits as well as nutrition aid in any bill addressing changes to immigration policy.

By law, immigrants who are not citizens or legal residents cannot receive federal health care benefits, including subsidies to buy insurance through the exchanges. Those eligibility limits also apply to Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program.

A bipartisan group of senators released a blueprint in late January that did not include health care benefits for the estimated 11 million people in the United States illegally even though they would have a chance to get provisional legal status. Obama, in his executive order allowing young people brought to the United States illegally by their parents to stay without fear of deportation, also did not include such health care benefits.

Rejeske said her group and others advocating for these benefits will push the notion that lawmakers are out of touch with the American public on this issue. She cited a February Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll in which 59 percent of those surveyed said immigrants who would gain provisional status through an overhaul should be eligible for financial help from the federal government to buy health insurance. And 63 percent said immigrants should be eligible to enroll in Medicaid if their income is low enough to qualify.

Since 1996, non-citizen immigrants who are in the country legally cannot enroll in Medicaid or CHIP during their first five years in the United States. However, states can set aside that restriction for pregnant women and children.

"All people, including Latinas and immigrant Latinas, deserve access to affordable, quality, and comprehensive health care, including reproductive health care,'' Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, said in a statement.

Supporters of allowing federal benefits for immigrants who gain provisional status acknowledge that getting Congress to agree to such a move could be difficult. But they say they still want to make their case for expanding current law in these cases.

"Until legislation is dropped, there continues to be an opening," Rejeske said.

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