The Affordable Care Act is meant to expand access to affordable health care coverage, but the law excludes one group from benefiting: the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
Under the federal health care law, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for any assistance. For example, they are excluded from getting federal subsidies to buy health insurance, and they cannot shop for coverage in the health insurance marketplace.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made that clear last week while answering questions about the health care law on a Google Hangout sponsored by Voto Latino.
“You have to be a legal resident in order to be entitled to a tax credit and purchase health insurance in the marketplace,” she said.
It is estimated that more than half of all undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States don’t have health insurance. And only a few have insurance through employer-sponsored programs.
The Urban Institute estimates that 25 percent of the people who will remain without health insurance once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented will be undocumented immigrants, making up the nation’s second-largest population of uninsured.
Nonprofit group offers medical care to undocumented immigrants
With limited health care options, undocumented immigrants are turning to community health clinics and nonprofit organization to get the medical care they need.
One of those nonprofit organizations is Puentes de Salud. The organization focuses on providing Latinos in South Philadelphia with quality health care and social services at a low cost. The New York Times profiled the Puentes de Salud las week in a story written by Jon Hurdle.
In the story, Dr. Steve Larson, a co-founder of Puentes de Salud, that the organization is different from other community health groups, because it addresses the economic and social conditions that have an underlying impact on the health of individuals.
“It’s not about me writing prescriptions,” Dr. Larson, a 53-year-old professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told The New York Times. “This is an underground health system.”
Most of the patients who seek treatment from Puentes de Salud are immigrants who lack a legal status and are not proficient in English. The nonprofit organization charges them as little as $20 for primary care services.
The group is able to charge a low cost because most of the medical staff members are volunteers, including Dr. Larson. There are only two full-time employees. Many of the volunteers are medical students and community volunteers.
Besides providing health services, the nonprofit organization also offers patients a wide variety of educational programs. Some of those programs include ESL classes, diabetes management assistance and oral health education and preventive dental care.
Mery Martinez, a 38-year-old undocumented immigrant from Honduras, is one of the estimated 3,300 patients who’ve received treatment at Puentes de Salud, according to The New York Times story. Like many undocumented immigrants, she can’t afford health insurance.
Martinez suffers from leukemia. She struggled to get treatment for her illness first in New York and then in Philadelphia until she heard about Puentes de Salud. The medical staff there examined her and advised her to apply for free treatment under Pennsylvania’s Emergency Medical Assistance Program, which she qualifies for because of her life-threatening condition.
States could extend health care benefits to undocumented immigrants
Though the Affordable Care Act bars undocumented immigrants from being eligible for federally funded health coverage, undocumented immigrants are eligible for some services.
For example, they are eligible for emergency care under Medicaid if they meet certain requirements, like having a low income. Medicaid is joint state-federal program that helps pay for health care costs of eligible non-citizens during the time of a medical emergency.
There are also some states that are considering whether to extend health care benefits to undocumented immigrants. Sebelius said on the Google Hangout last week that this could be done as long as the benefits are covered with funds from the state, not the federal government.
A state lawmaker in California is already planning to introduce legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to have access to health insurance through the state’s version of the Affordable Care Act.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who chairs the California Legislative Latino Caucus, said his bill would expand access to health care coverage for all California residents regardless of their immigration status.
“We’ve made enormous strides to reduce California’s uninsured population with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but we won’t have a truly healthy state until everyone has access to quality, affordable coverage,” Lara said in a statement.
This article originally appeared on VOXXI under the title "Health care options for undocumented immigrants are limited."