June 29, 2007

“Stories of the Immigrant Children Left Behind” paints a picture of hardship

By Malena Amusa

As Michael Moore’s new documentary “Sicko” arrives in theaters this month, a new report was released this week joined the famed filmmaker to demand standard health insurance for Americans.

“Stories of the Immigrant Children Left Behind” looks at one sector of the population— low-income immigrant families — and their struggle with red tape and laws that make them ineligible for Medicaid.

“The concern is that this will be seen as an immigration issue. But this is not one,” said Gerald Smith, co-author of a report that compiled the stories of families without health coverage. “This is about a health-care disparity issue.”

A lot changed for children and their immigrant parents in 1996, Smith said.

That year, the federal government passed a law barring anyone entering after 1996 from enrolling in Medicaid for at least five years.

Ten years in the making, this legislation has caused a lot of preventable havoc.

“This five-year bar is denying a huge population, immigrants of color, health care, while there are already hug considerable gaps of income,” said Smith with the Seattle-based Northwest Federation of Community Organizations producing the report.

Stories highlighted in the report show this. They illustrate how the lack of basic health services like dental exams led to chronic medical conditions; how one family racked up a $20,000 debt to pay for a pregnancy; how many immigrants were forced to beg to get affordable health care.

Advocates like Smith and Moore want to persuade policymakers to reverse federal laws limiting access to quality health care. This year offers a resurgence of optimism, however, with a federal healthcare provision set to eliminate uninsurance among children up for reauthorization later this year.

In 1997, the federal government passed the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). It was a watershed piece of legislation that expanded Medicaid and other health insurance services to low-income families by giving states more money and flexibility to cater health services to their needs.

But the 1996 federal law barring immigrants and their children from Medicaid eligibility for five years left many children out in the cold.

Today, nine million children are without health insurance, according to the report, also sponsored by and the Center for Community Change in Washington D.C.

Roughly 400,000 to 600,000 low-income children would be able to enroll in Medicaid and in SCHIP if it weren’t for the five-year bar, 2005 data prepared by the Urban Institute showed.

In addition, these numbers are exaggerated along the color line.

“The uninsured rate for Latino children is almost three times that for white children,” the report noted. “African American children are almost twice as likely—and Asian children more than one and a half times as likely to lack coverage.”

Citing the new laws, many healthcare providers struggle with turning down children simply because of their immigrant status. Jazmin Arias from Oregon explained in the report:

“I used to work for the Oregon Health Plan which combines the state’s Medicaid and SCHIP programs. I reviewed applications and determined whether people qualified. Oregon does not offer coverage to children who haven’t completed the five years with their green cards. If they applied, the only thing they’d get in the mail was a denial letter.

“It broke my heart to reject children for this reason, but that was the law. I knew what the consequences would be: the kids I was rejecting would not get healthcare for years. Even at community clinics for people of limited means, the costs can really add up. Parents have to make tough, agonizing choices.”

Stories such as these make clear the negative impacts of the five-year bar on immigrants’ access to Medicaid.

“Maintaining the five—year bar perpetuates grave racial and ethnic disparities in health coverage,” the report read, “giving many children of color a late start on development. The five-year bar and related restrictions are out of step with the growing consensus that heath insurance matters for all our children.”

Currently, twenty-states including Maine, California and New York provide state funds to override the federal government’s ban on immigrant families.

One father is happy about this.

“These days, we are only getting one day of work per week at the sea cucumber plant,” said Roberto Zamora, a factor worker in Maine. “We are relieved to know that if anything happens to our children, they will be able to get access to medical help even during these tough times.”

Malena Amusa is the communications associate at the Applied Research Center.

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