In Midst of Health Care Turmoil, States Step up for Immigrant Children

By Lena O’Rourke

The future of federal health policy feels uncertain right now—but for low-income children the need for high-quality health insurance has never been more urgent. Because governors, lawmakers, doctors, teachers, and parents all know how important health insurance is for the wellbeing of children, they want strong policy that provides coverage to children. So despite the partisan bickering at the federal level and the ongoing national conversation on health reform, an increasing number of states are using the flexibility they already to have to cover more children.

States are taking action because they know that having health insurance leads to better access to care, lower financial burden on families, and better health outcomes. When compared to those without insurance, Medicaid recipients are significantly more likely to have a usual source of care. And people with Medicaid are just as likely to have a usual source of care as those with private insurance. Simply stated, children need health coverage to thrive. Yet, many immigrant children must wait up to five years to get basic health care assistance due to restrictions established in 1996.

States understand that the benefits of health coverage to children are immeasurable. When children have coverage they can get needed services—and their families no longer worry about financially crippling medical bills. States benefit by having healthier children who are ready to learn and stay in school, who can access preventive services, such as immunizations, and who will contribute in the workforce as taxpayers.

Many people in the states know this and are looking for ways to support all their children because it improves their health today and into the future. And they are succeeding: in the last month we have seen two more bright spots of expanded coverage for children.

This week, Oregon will enact the bipartisan “Cover All Kids” legislation that will expand access to affordable health care for more than 17,000 immigrant children.  This was the result of a multi-year advocacy campaign led by the Oregon Latino Health Coalition and joined by 100+ organizations. These children will now be able to get coverage regardless of their documentation or immigration status. And they are joining California, Washington, New York, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, all of which have already made this commitment.

The Nevada legislature also voted this month to allow lawfully present immigrant children to enroll in Medicaid, dropping the ill-informed five-year ban on these kids getting access to coverage.  Once implemented, Nevada will join 31 other states (including the District of Columbia) that have used this authority to expand coverage to immigrant children.  Nevada estimates that 5,000 lawfully present immigrant children will become eligible for Medicaid.

Notably, an amendment to the Nevada legislation does allow the state to reinstate the five-year coverage ban if federal financing for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is slashed. Nevada will receive the enhanced federal CHIP matching rate—a substantial investment of state and federal funds. This underscores again the importance of rejecting federal efforts to dramatically and permanently reduce federal Medicaid spending. Cuts in spending would force states to eliminate coverage for vulnerable children and take a step backward in the equitable delivery of health care for lawfully present children. In the meantime, we applaud Oregon and Nevada for making a smart investment in the future of their children—and their state.