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Opinion

Expanding Immigrant Access to Health Care in New York


Statue of Liberty

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


In January of 2017, after living in this country for 17 years, I was able to access health insurance for the first time in my life. I became eligible as a new graduate studentl at NYU, which had a Student Health Insurance Plan—and, because in New York, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients were eligible for health insurance.

Now, when I am ill or in need of a checkup, uncertainty and stress are no longer part of the equation. When I feel sick, I no longer need to try to force my body into thinking I’m not sick or treat myself with Tylenol or Theraflu. Instead, I can see a doctor, get the prescription I need, and recover quickly.

Having access to high-quality health care in the past year has lifted an enormous burden from my shoulders. I used to feel anxious and scared every time I started to catch a cold. Now, each time I find myself at the Student Health Center since then, I feel gratitude and relief.

But now, as President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants escalate, health care access is in jeopardy again for Dreamers like me, as well as immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

New York has long led the way in providing more expansive health care access than the federal government and most states. In Florida, where I went to college, I could not get health insurance. Earlier this year, Dreamers in New York received good news when Governor Cuomo announced that income-eligible DACA beneficiaries would continue to be eligible for state-funded Medicaid. This was an important step forward for the immigrant community and for health care for all in New York.

But the governor’s announcement does not mean that all Dreamers and immigrants will have access to health care. We need further action to ensure that all Dreamers and TPS holders have access to health insurance.

For immigrant youth like me, and young people across the state more generally, the solution is to pass legislation to increase the upper age limit of the Child Health Plus (CHP) Program from 19 to 29.

CHP was founded on the fundamental truth that health care is a human right. The program honors this principle by providing comprehensive health care services to uninsured young people not eligible for Medicaid or Marketplace coverage. For a mere .5% of the state’s annual budget, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature could expand CHP in this way to increase access to nearly 100,000 more young adults who would be newly eligible for high-quality coverage, since they have been aging out of CHP when they turn 19.

Additionally, with Trump acting to terminate TPS for countries like El Salvador and Haiti, hundreds of thousands of current TPS holders are at risk of losing legal status. In New York, this will put tens of thousands more in jeopardy of losing access to health care, in addition to potentially facing deportation.

New York State must take measures to ensure that TPS holders maintain their health coverage regardless of the reckless—and, frankly, racist—policies from Washington. First, the State must pass legislation to ensure TPS recipients remain eligible for Medicaid, even if they are stripped of their protection. Second, New York should create a state-funded Essential Plan for all New Yorkers who earn up to 200% of the federal poverty level, regardless of immigration status. This plan would be of particular urgency for immigrants who will be losing their TPS and thus, their current health insurance.

These policies offer a clear path for New York to lead on immigrant health care access. That’s why immigrant-led organizations like Make the Road New York (MRNY), which has included the policies as part of their statewide Respect and Dignity for All Platform, and the Coverage for All Coalition are lobbying legislators and the governor to adopt them. In fact, more than 500 MRNY members will be rallying and talking to legislators in Albany today -- Tuesday, March 6 -- about this issue as a central part of their 2018 agenda.

Day in, and day out, immigrants build this country. We are the ones who cook your food, care for your kids, stock your shelves, pick your vegetables, mow your lawn, and clean your house. We graduate in the top percentile of our classes, pay for our own education, serve our communities, and make lasting contributions to the beautiful tapestry of American culture. 

Like all Americans, and all New Yorkers, we deserve access to health care—not as a privilege, but as a right.

New York has led the way before on health care access and standing up for immigrants. This legislative session, it’s time for Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to renew that commitment by adopting further measures to protect immigrants like me.

The Trump administration doesn’t want immigrants like me to have access to health care. We need New York to have our backs.

***
Lucas Lopes is a Master of Public Administration student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

***
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