Immigrant families represent a critical “coverage gap” in the push to expand access to affordable health insurance in the United States. Last week, members of Congress took an important step in addressing that gap and the health-care needs of those immigrants authorized to live and work in the United States by introducing the Health Equity and Access Under the Law (HEAL) for Immigrant Women and Families Act of 2014, a bill supporters say will help undo some of the discriminatory barriers immigrants face in accessing affordable health-care coverage.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), would open access to affordable health insurance coverage for immigrants authorized to live and work in the United States by removing barriers
that have the effect of making health care unaffordable. Specifically, the law would immediately enable access to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for immigrants who are otherwise eligible for coverage, removing the current ban on enrollment for five years after an immigrant has established lawful status.
The law would also remove the exclusion of DREAMers—immigrants who arrived in the country at a young age—who’ve been granted deferred action through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from accessing insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
“The HEAL Immigrant Women and Families Act is about fair treatment, plain and simple,” Rep. Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “Immigrant women and families work hard, pay their taxes, and contribute to our communities, society, and economy. They shouldn’t be barred from accessing the health care they help pay for.”
Nearly 200 national, state, and local organizations and associations have signed
a letter of support for the legislation. Other co-sponsors of the bill include leaders of the Congressional Asian Pacific American, Black, and Hispanic caucuses. “Given the high rates of uninsurance among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the grave health disparities faced by immigrant women in our community, we applaud the introduction of the HEAL Immigrant Women and Families Act,” said Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) in a statement. “Women in our community have some of the highest rates of cervical cancer and, if enacted, this measure could save their lives.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the need for such legislation is critical given that the restrictions immigrants face in accessing health care disproportionately
affect women and perpetuate a “self-defeating” policy that hinders economic well-being. “Immigrant women are the backbones of their families and communities,” said Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “It’s not only fair, it’s common sense to remove political interference so they and their families can participate in the health care programs their tax dollars support. Good health care ensures women have the opportunity to realize their full potential, care for their families, and make their own decisions about their future. That’s good for all of us.”
While the legislation addresses the needs of immigrant women and families specifically, it is part of a larger push by public health advocates to expand health insurance coverage for low-income earners generally and comes as Republicans in Congress voted yet again to repeal the Affordable Care Act. According to the Guttmacher Institute, among women of reproductive age, 45 percent of the 6.6 million noncitizen immigrants are uninsured. That’s compared to 24 percent of naturalized citizen immigrants and 18 percent of U.S.-born women. Among those women of reproductive-age with incomes below the federal poverty line, 60 percent of noncitizen immigrant women lack health insurance.
According to Rep. Grisham, if passed, the bill would help guarantee access to affordable health insurance coverage for more than 600,000 legal permanent residents nationwide.