Governor pushes on immigrant health benefits, but lawmaker says 'no'

Saying the Legislature has made its position clear, a top House lawmaker said that the Patrick administration should shift funds within the state’s large human services budget if it wants to continue health coverage beyond July for 30,000 legal immigrants who are not citizens.

Rep. Harriett Stanley (D-West Newbury), in an interview with the News Service, said that in the wake of the Legislature’s $130 million cut in annual funds for Commonwealth Care subsidized coverage for legal immigrants, a cut that she said lawmakers made reluctantly and due to the economic downturn, Patrick’s counter-request for $70 million to keep coverage going in the coming months represented a “backdoor way” to fund the program.
“The Legislature said this is not a high priority right now and the governor is trying to come around through the back door,” said Stanley, co-chairwoman of the Health Care Financing Committee. “We’re barely able to hold health reform together. Cost containment is the next order of the day.”
In a supplemental budget request, Patrick said coverage for the 30,000 so-called “aliens with special status” (AWSS) was part of larger health care reform efforts, and said retreating from it was “a major step backwards from our progress at a time when the eyes of the nation are focused on this groundbreaking initiative.”
Sitting down with two dozen reporters from ethnic media outlets from across the state, Patrick took the opportunity to ask their readers and viewers to put pressure on lawmakers to defend universal health care efforts.
“We have to keep faith with that element of our health care experiment, particularly when the whole country is watching,” Patrick said. “Their engagement in advocating for this will be helpful for us. Ask folks to contact their representatives and senators and express their support for this element of health care reform.”
He urged those immigrants who might not be fluent in English to remember three words: “I support AWSS.”
Patrick described the issue as “real time, as they say in the building,” estimating that the Legislature could take decisive action on his coverage proposal within the next 10 days.
Consumer advocates and community groups plan a press conference Wednesday to press lawmakers to approve the $70 million. Groups behind the push include ACT!!, Health Care For All, Mass. Hospital Association, 1199 SEIU, Neighbor to Neighbor, Coalition for Social Justice, Mass. Immigrant Refugee Association, Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, and the American Cancer Society.
The state Connector Authority sent notices on July 1 to the 30,000 immigrants enrolled in Commonwealth Care, cautioning them that changes in state law meant the program “would no longer provide health coverage to non-citizens whose immigration status does not qualify them to receive federally-funded benefits.”
An authority spokesman said the state budget included $10 million to fund the immigrant health benefits through July, but no funding for coverage beyond July 31.
Stanley said the issue of immigrant health care was a “little bit of a third rail in the Legislature right now” and suggested the supplemental funding request is “probably not the best approach.” She added, “I’m perfectly aware that this means cost shifting. Transferability is something that’s done all the time.”
The fiscal 2010 health and human services secretariat’s budget totals $13.67 billion.
Asked whether shifting funds to maintain coverage was a viable option, communications aides to Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby did not respond.
Stanley said the “most problematic” aspect of the coverage for legal immigrants is the fact that unlike other Medicaid spending, the outlay is fully funded by the state and attracts no federal matching funds. She said she didn’t know how Speaker Robert DeLeo or House Ways and Means chair Charley Murphy felt about the issue, but said a number of colleagues she’d spoken with shared her opinion.
A Murphy spokesman said he wouldn’t comment until the committee finishes its review of budget vetoes, amendments and the mini-budget Patrick filed, which includes the request for immigrant health care funding.
Advocates for immigrants hit back at Stanley for her suggestion to move funds around to maintain coverage.
“It’s really unfortunate that she would express that,” said Frank Soults, spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “Health and Human Services has already been hit hard and it’s not like they have discretionary funds they can use at will. The governor’s not trying to use a back door. He’s trying to be creative.”
Soults said MIRA has been “doing quite a bit of talking” with lawmakers to urge them to back the governor’s plan.
Patrick told ethnic media to press the issue, beginning and ending an 80-minute session by urging reporters to alert readers, listeners and viewers to lobby lawmakers to support threatened health care coverage for immigrants. He ended by reciting the number for Legislature’s switchboard, 722-2000.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” the governor said. “We have to show support for this. There is something I have noticed about the political activity of legal aliens in the Commonwealth for a long, long time. People get pushed a little bit into the shadows. This is a community as vital to our Commonwealth-wide community as anybody. They need to be invited into civic life. They need to be called on to take some responsibility for their civic interests.”
In its notice to immigrant enrollees, the Connector Authority lays out a long list of non-citizens who will continue to be able to get Commonwealth Care benefits, including “certain” legal permanent residents, parolees or “conditional entrants” who received any one of the statuses at least five years ago or before Aug. 22, 1996 or who entered the U.S. before Aug. 22, 1996 and have been living in the U.S. continuously from the last date of entry before Aug. 22, 1996 until the date they got one of the statuses.
Other non-citizens may be eligible to remain on Commonwealth Care, regardless of their date of entry to the U.S., including “certain” refugees and asylees, individuals and children who have been victims of domestic violence and are no longer living with their abusers, victims of severe forms of trafficking, veterans or active duty personnel, and “certain” Cuban/Haitian entrants, Amerasians, Filipino veterans, Hmong or Highland Lao veterans, Iraqi or Afghan special immigrants, and Native Americans who were born in Canada or other territories outside the United States, according to the Connector Authority.
Immigrant enrollees in Commonwealth Care who do not match any of the statuses or who are citizens were encouraged by the Connector Authority to call their customer service center at 1-877-MA-ENROLL “and they will direct you on how to update your immigration status.”
The authority also says certain immigrants who may no longer be eligible for Commonwealth Care may qualify for MassHealth, another state health insurance program, or Healthy Start if they meet financial guidelines and are pregnant, 65 or older, or disabled. Immigrants ineligible for Commonwealth Care were also advised they may be eligible to receive services from certain hospitals and community health centers through Health Safety Net and that they’ll receive another notice with more information.