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Would You Wait Five Years for a Doctor’s Appointment?

Immigration Matters

New America Media, Commentary, Jennifer Ng’andu Posted: Dec 11, 2009

If you are a legal immigrant living in the United States, you might have to. As the debate over how to reform our current health care system moves forward, the issue of whether or not we should allow legal immigrants to access health care reform continues to raise red flags for immigrant advocates and those who believe in our nation’s traditions of fairness and equal opportunity. Under the health care reform bill currently before the Senate, legally present immigrants remain barred from Medicaid for five years, even if they meet all other qualifications. At the same time, they are required to purchase insurance just like every other American. This means that immigrants of moderate means who want to meet their responsibilities under reform may not have access to any other form of affordable health insurance. If they can scrape by, some might be able to buy more expensive insurance, but many other legal immigrants will have to rely on measures of last resort, such as emergency rooms.

This restriction has been in place for more than 13 years, but the Senate now has the chance to eliminate this harsh measure. As our country considers how to improve health care for all Americans, isn’t it far past time to leave the flawed logic of our fractured health care system behind? Earlier this year, Congress took a major step toward immigrant equity in health care by giving states the option to remove the waiting period for immigrant children and pregnant women who enter the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). But many legal immigrants remain excluded from these options. As many as 600,000 legal immigrants may be eligible for Medicaid if the five-year bar is eliminated, and states would receive the additional benefit of receiving matching funds from the federal government for providing insurance to legal immigrant adults.

To date, Congress hasn’t had much of a conversation about legal immigrants’ inclusion in reform, but there has been one exception. Earlier this week, Senator Robert Menendez, D–N.J., filed an amendment that would remove restrictions to the Medicaid program for lawfully residing immigrants as part of health care reform legislation. Policymakers now have the chance to stand for equity and provide legal immigrants with access to health insurance so they can get healthy and stay that way.

It is important that legal immigrants are afforded the same opportunities as citizens to meet their responsibilities in the new health care system. After all, most of them will become citizens in the near future. It is shortsighted to delay or deny their access to affordable health care. The Senate should act quickly to include the Menendez amendment in their version of the health care reform bill. Waiting five years for a doctor’s appointment is unacceptable to most Americans, and it should be to Congress as well.

Jennifer Ng’andu is the deputy director of the Health Policy Project in the National Council of La Raza’s (NCLR) Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation. IMMIGRATION MATTERS regularly features the views of immigration experts and advocacy groups.

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