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Immigration Bill: No Federal Health Benefits for Up to a Decade

By Chase Cook
Oklahoma Watch


Undocumented immigrants given temporary legal status under a new immigration bill would be denied access to Medicaid and other subsidized insurance offered by the federal health-reform law.

That would mean thousands of immigrants, while waiting for up to 10 years to be fully legalized, would likely continue turning to Oklahoma hospitals, clinics and other providers for free or reduced-cost care, health and advocacy-group officials said. Immigrants also would tend to delay or forego treatment because they can’t afford it, officials said.

Immigrants given legal status under the bill would gain one new health option: They could legally get a job that offers health insurance. But according to studies, many immigrants work for small employers who don’t offer affordable coverage and won’t be required to do so under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

In Oklahoma, those immigrants would face the same situation as many other low-income people. An estimated 130,000 to 170,000 Oklahomans will remain ineligible for Medicaid next year because of Gov. Mary Fallin’s decision to reject federal money to expand the program under the health-care law. They and any newly legalized immigrants also could not use tax credits to buy subsidized coverage on a new federal health exchange, where people can shop for plans online.

There are about 75,000 illegal immigrants in Oklahoma and 11 million nationwide, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Patti Davis, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said the group was studying the possible impact of the immigration bill. She did not have a specific figure for the cost of uncompensated care for illegal immigrants, but said hospitals provide a total of more than $500 million a year in uncompensated care. Those costs lead to higher costs for other patients.

“Federal law requires hospitals to provide emergency treatment and stabilization,” Davis said. “The bottom line is we all as citizens pay for uncompensated care.”

The immigration bill, unveiled this week by a bipartisan group of senators, would grant “resident provisional immigrant status” to those who entered the country illegally before Dec. 31, 2011. Most would be granted the status for six years if they pay a $500 penalty, have no felonies or more than three misdemeanors, and meet other criteria. They would be eligible to work legally and travel in and out of the country. Immigrants would need to fulfill other requirements to gain full legal status after 10 years. An exception is so-called “dreamer” applicants, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. They could become permanent residents after five years.

The legislation, which also sets strict criteria for securing the border, is expected to generate intense debate in Congress and undergo changes if it passes.

The denial of health coverage to immigrants affected by the bill was not unexpected, because giving them benefits would intensify opposition to the bill. The immigrants also won’t be eligible for federal welfare programs for families and children.

The denial, however…

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