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Immigrants Advocates Urge Conn. Lawmakers To Expand HUSKY Health To Undocumented

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Health care advocates and immigrants rights groups are urging Connecticut lawmakers to expand the state’s Medicaid program eligibility to undocumented immigrants.

Proposed legislation in the state human services committee would allow anyone who meets state residency and income thresholds to enroll in HUSKY Health plans, regardless of citizenship status. 

During a public hearing Thursday, supporters said the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on existing health disparities in undocumented communities, creating the opportunity to make changes that they said will benefit communities at-large and reduce health care costs overall going forward.

“Many of them being front-line workers, many of them being the people that are restocking our shelves, that are delivering our groceries … basically being our neighbors, being part of the community, being part of the economy,” said Roger Senserrich, an immigrant and communications director for Connecticut Working Families Organization.

“But we have asked them to do all this without having access to insurance.”

There are an estimated 120,000 undocumented immigrants living in Connecticut, according to federal data. A majority of them are not eligible for public assistance programs, leaving people to pay for health care costs out of pocket or find employer-sponsored coverage.

Limited options result in a significant percentage of the undocumented population without health insurance.

“While the uninsured rate in Connecticut is roughly 5.9%, an estimated 52% of undocumented immigrants in our state are uninsured,” doctors and health care providers wrote in a March 1 letter to the human services committee.

More than 300 Connecticut health providers signed the letter in support of expanding HUSKY eligibility to undocumented children and adults with Senate Bill 956.

Among them was Dr. Daisy Leon-Martinez, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Yale New Haven Hospital. She testified Thursday during the virtual public hearing and told the story of a pregnant patient who was in her mid-20s, a mother of three and undocumented.

For these reasons, Leon-Martinez said Jane (a pseudonym used to protect the woman’s privacy) delayed seeking prenatal coverage until her eighth month of pregnancy.

“Unbeknown to her, during the course of this pregnancy, she developed overt and severe diabetes,” Leon-Martinez said. “Due to her lack of insurance, we were unable to emergently manage her disease in a way that she and her baby deserved.”

Three weeks before Jane’s due date, Leon-Martinez said her patient came in for an evaluation and health care providers could no longer find a heartbeat. She said the baby had succumbed to the effects of diabetes and Jane soon after delivered “an otherwise perfect, but stillborn baby girl.”

However, it didn’t end there. Leon-Martinez said Jane suffered a life-threatening blood loss, another possible complication of uncontrolled diabetes, during childbirth. Doctors had to perform an emergency hysterectomy, which involves the removal of the uterus.

“I share this story not to bring sadness, but to encourage action,” Leon-Martinez said. “Jane’s disease is common. It is treatable. Her outcomes were completely and undoubtedly preventable.”

Connecticut immigrants -- both undocumented and those with citizenship status -- recounted stories of being turned away for lifesaving treatments and preventive services, encountering discrimination and racism while seeking health care, and fear of being arrested while trying to get help.

State officials acknowledged the need to reduce Connecticut’s uninsured rates and improve health care access, but state Department of Social Services commissioner Deidre Gifford said they could not support the bill going forward due to cost reasons.

“Under this proposal, the state would not be able to claim federal match for these adults and children,” Gifford testified. “This means that any additional program costs and administrative costs would be borne entirely by the state. We estimate those costs to be approximately $195 million per year.”

Currently, the federal government pays between 50% and 90% of the cost for health care services provided to eligible Medicaid enrollees in the form of reimbursements to the state, individual providers and health facilities.

Advocates for immigrants argue that many undocumented residents pay state and federal taxes, which help fund programs like HUSKY Health, and they should therefore have access to coverage.

Camila Bortolleto, an undocumented immigrant and co-director for Connecticut Students 4 A Dream, added that providing people stable health coverage has been shown to reduce overall health care costs.

“And save money by allowing them to receive the preventative care they need to treat issues early on,” she said. “When issues are treated earlier it is of course cheaper to resolve, and people live healthier lives and they become cheaper to insure.”

The human services committee will need to vote on the bill to determine whether it moves to the General Assembly for further consideration.

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public Radio

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.
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