Governor finds one-month lifeline for legal immigrant health plan

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 29, 2010…..Although the Patrick administration had warned that a health coverage program that serves about 22,000 legal immigrants would run out of money by the end of December, Gov. Deval Patrick now says funding exists to keep the program alive through January.

Over the next month, the administration intends to “build legislative support” to fund the program for at least another five months, according to a spokesman for the Patrick administration’s budget office.

The program provides coverage to immigrants known as "aliens with special status," or AWSS, who have been singled out because the federal government declines to reimburse states for their care. AWSS immigrants are legal, green card holders who have been in the country for fewer than five years.

Under a federal health care overhaul signed by President Obama in March, the federal government will begin reimbursing states for these immigrants’ care in 2014.

Lawmakers last year cut AWSS immigrants from the rolls of Commonwealth Care, a state-subsidized insurance program for low-income residents, to balance the state budget. Individuals eligible for Commonwealth Care earn less than $33,000 a year, while eligible couples must earn below about $45,000 and a family of four must earn below about $66,000.

In response to the cut, Gov. Deval Patrick proposed funding a scaled-back health insurance program for AWSS immigrants. Eventually, legislators agreed to provide $40 million for limited coverage, about a third of what the governor initially estimated it would cost to fully fund the AWSS population.

That limited plan, offered by CeltiCare, a recent entrant in the Massachusetts marketplace, excluded coverage for vision, dental, hospice and skilled nursing and came with significant co-pay increases. The CeltiCare plan, known as the Commonwealth Care Bridge Program, was reauthorized at $60 million in this year's budget, with the funds drawn from the Commonwealth Care Trust Fund.

Advocates for immigrants said the extra month of funding came as “a relief” and offers an opportunity for the immigrant community to build support to fund the program further. But a spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition said additional funding appears to be “a long shot.”

“It’s going to be difficult to get the Legislature to commit funding because they’ve had opportunities to do so in the past and they’ve chosen not to,” said the spokesman, Frank Soults.

Rep. Harriett Stanley (D-West Newbury) and Sen. Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge), co-chairs of the Committee on Health Care Finance, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaicai Plain), a supporter of the Bridge Program, said she would work to build support among her colleagues for additional funding.

“I think it will take real work,” she said. “It is quite simply the right thing to do on many fronts. In terms of the state’s commitment to health care reform it is the right thing to do.”