Gotham Gazette

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California’s Moving to Expand Health Coverage to Immigrants; What About New York?

ca mov expand

Health care in New York (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a $2.7 billion expansion to his state’s Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal, in his state budget proposal. This transformative policy would extend to all immigrants, regardless of their status, covering an estimated 700,000 individuals. As California moves forward to expand immigrants’ access to health care, shouldn’t New York have immigrants’ backs, too?

The answer is yes. Here in the Empire State, community members and legislators have joined together to support a proposal known as Coverage for All (A880/S1572), which would create a state-funded Essential Plan for all New Yorkers earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level who are currently excluded because of their immigration status. The question is: will Governor Hochul show the same leadership as Governor Newsom, and support the expansion of health coverage and care to New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status?

In the United States, our broken health-care system treats health care as a privilege, instead of the right it should be. It has been commodified to the point where people die because they decided not to seek preventative care due to high prices or they go bankrupt when choosing to seek medical care. 

Take the experience of Reyna Tellez, a Make the Road New York member and Queens resident who has struggled without health care in New York and recently shared her story with us: “In the past, I have paid about $200 for a single doctor's visit and about $300 for medications. Sometimes, I have had to take out a loan to pay for medication. Early last year I found a lump in my breast and finally in July a biopsy was done. However, the hospital told me they couldn't remove the mass because I don't have health insurance. I am scared and still in pain. I am a single mother, I am afraid for my two children.”

Reyna’s experience is, unfortunately, a common one for undocumented immigrants, who cannot access health insurance and necessary medical care because of exorbitant costs.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vast inequalities that exist within our health-care system. In the darkest days of the pandemic, immigrants and other New Yorkers of color stepped up to work in harm's way. Immigrants make up 54% of New York’s essential workforce. But, while they were putting their bodies on the line, many were being systematically excluded from the health-care system they needed if they got sick. According to a 2021 report by Families USA, more than 8,200 New Yorkers died from COVID-19 due to a lack of health coverage. It is estimated that at least 2,700 of them were undocumented. 

When more than 40% of all COVID-19 infections, and roughly one out of every three COVID-19 deaths, are associated with health insurance gaps, there is systemic failure. With no current federal plan to address the problem of inequality in coverage, especially for undocumented people, individual states must step up to remedy this.

The answer for our state is Coverage for All, which would help New York move toward extending health-care coverage to all. Similar to what Governor Newsom has proposed in California, the bill would ensure access to coverage and care for undocumented residents.

By investing the resources to develop a more inclusive health-care system, New York will be creating healthier and more sustainable communities. Roughly 154,000 New Yorkers are uninsured and not eligible for insurance due to their immigration status. Passing Coverage for All in this year’s state budget, due April 1, would fix that. It would also help continue moving towards implementing the New York Health Act, the north star for universal care in New York.

Immigrant New Yorkers are not the only ones calling for an expansion of health coverage either. Insurers across the state have come out in support of Coverage for All and dramatically expanding coverage. Moreover, according to the Urban Institute, insuring 110,000 uninsured people could also save providers over $318 million in uncompensated care costs. 

Like Governor Newsom, Governor Hochul has spoken of the need to invest in and improve our health-care system. By passing and funding Coverage for All in this year’s budget, she has the opportunity to make it happen. We all deserve access to doctors and hospitals and care. We all deserve to live healthy lives. 

Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas is an Assemblymember representing the 34th District in Queens. Theo Oshiro is the Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York. On Twitter: @votejgr & @theooshiro of @MaketheRoadNY.

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