Affordable Care Act: What it means for immigrants

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When Sunnyside resident Blanca Palomeque had ovarian cancer two years ago she didn’t have full health insurance to cover her treatment.

She enrolled in the Medicaid Spenddown program, but it only provided her with six months of assistance and she was forced to pay $15 out of pocket for each visit to Elmhurst Hospital and $150 for each CAT scan during the next year-and-a-half of her battle.

Even after winning the war with the disease earlier this year, Palomeque, 49, still didn’t buy an insurance plan.

“I don’t have medical care, because it’s difficult to have it,” Palomeque said. “I don’t qualify for Medicaid health insurance, because my income is a little too high, and it’s difficult to afford private care.”

Instead, Palomeque, who emigrated from Ecuador 11 years ago and is a documented immigrant, prefers to pay for hospital visits instead of committing to a plan.

However, like many Queens immigrants, she is rejoicing after the Supreme Court’s recent approval of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), praising its expansion of the health care system, which will benefit legal residents and may even help undocumented immigrants. “I think it’s a really good idea, because now the community will be able to act fast on health insurance,” Palomeque said. “Sometimes people have illnesses that last a long time and it’s really difficult to go and pay each time.”

“As an organization we believe that it’s a step forward, because it opens up access to health care and health insurance to many people who are uninsured,” said Theo Oshiro, deputy director of Make the Road New York, which is a non-profit organization that predominately supports Latin immigrants in the city.

Of the approximately 2.2 million residents living in the borough, nearly 50 percent are foreign born, according to the 2010 Census, and documented immigrants will receive the same benefits from the act as native citizens.

This means they won’t have to worry about getting insurance if they have pre-existing conditions, and now their children can remain on their current plans until age 26.

Documented immigrants must also follow the mandate that requires everyone to have insurance or face a tax.

But if they don’t already have insurance or qualify for Medicaid, they will be able to purchase health care from the state-run “exchanges,” or collections of low rate insurance options when they become available in 2014.

“They just have to worry about everything they worried about before,” said Stan Mark, senior staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “They have to struggle to get the minimal health care option that they can get.”

New York, which was one of the states that chose to expand its Medicaid coverage through ACA, will receive more than $2 billion in federal funding starting in 2014, and many immigrants will continue to receive care from it.

Immigrant groups officials say the down side to ACA is that it none of its benefits are available for undocumented immigrants, which could upset many foreign born residents.

But the law will affect them.

In 2003 Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued executive orders, (EO) 34 and 41, which replaced former Mayor Ed Koch’s EO124, but kept the same concept to protect immigrants.

The order “Ensures that all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, can access the city services that they are entitled to receive.” In addition, “City workers must protect the confidentiality of a person’s immigration status,” unless that person is suspected of illegal activity.

It was established so that undocumented immigrants would report crimes to the police, call firefighters, get medical treatment or send their children to school without fear of deportation.

Because of EO 34 and 41, undocumented immigrants have received care from public hospitals under the Health and Hospital Corporations (HHC), such as Elmhurst Hospital or Queens Hospital Center, and will continue to do so.

“For generations New York has been known as a city of immigrants, and for generations the public hospitals have cared for New York’s immigrant populations,” said HHC President Alan Aviles. “It is important to remind immigrant New Yorkers that they can get quality health care in our city without fear.”