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Five Years to Life -- Congress Fails to Meet Health Needs of APIs

Immigration Matters

New America Media, Commentary, Sara Sadhwani Posted: Aug 02, 2009

Editor's Note: In the debate over health care reform, we rarely hear about the large numbers of Americans that will be left out entirely. Among them are immigrants, writes Sara Sadhwani, director of the Immigrant Rights Project at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. IMMIGRATION MATTERS regularly features the views of immigration experts across the country.

Each day we hear about the need to reform our health care system, and often the conversation focuses on those trying to derail the process. We often hear about the skyrocketing costs leading to bankruptcy for many families, the insurance company profit margins and the economic costs and benefits reform could potentially bring. What we dont hear about are the large swaths of the American population that will be left out entirely. Among them are immigrants.

Current legislative proposals would create an exchange or a pool that individuals in need of health care would be able to opt into in order to select a plan. For families with low to moderate income, subsidies would be available to help offset costs and to insure the largest number of people possible would have access to coverage. Unfortunately, under current law, immigrants must wait five years to access federally funded programs such as the subsidies.

In 1996, Congress and the Clinton administration overhauled the welfare system, but in doing so they established a five-year waiting period for legal permanent residents (immigrants with green cards) to access federally funded public benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security income stipends. For many low-income and struggling Asian Americans, this waiting period was more like a prison sentence.

This kind of waiting period disproportionately impacts Asian Americans who are the fastest growing major ethnic group in the nation. Last year, more than 380,000 individuals came from Asia to the United States as legal permanent residents. And despite working, living and paying the same taxes as U.S. citizens, all of those people -- as well as the more than 1 million people who have come here legally since 2004 -- would be ineligible for the lower cost health care, if the five year waiting period is not removed.

Our diverse API communities face serious health disparities, which make health coverage essential. A recent report identifies cancer as the leading cause of death for Asian Americans. South Asians and Pacific Islanders face high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease. In addition, much of our community continues to lack health coverage, with Korean Americans having some of the largest numbers of the uninsured.

Everyone needs health care and our doctors and nurses arent going to simply let people face a death sentence for lacking insurance coverage. By having everyone in our communities buy health insurance they can afford, we ensure a healthier society. Congress must remove the five-year waiting period for immigrant communities so that struggling Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders can have access to affordable health coverage.

Related Articles:

The Unintended Consequences of Healthcare Reform

Will Health Care Reform Harm Ethnic Minorities?

Latinos Have a Stake in Health Care Reform

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