Undocumented kids get health care in six states, D.C.

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On Jan. 1, Oregon became the sixth state, plus the District of Columbia, to offer health care coverage to undocumented children.

Hospitals, doctors and other providers, as well as insurers that will administer the coverage, supported the move as a way to ensure that children stay healthy. The insurance will help families pay their medical bills, which will benefit the hospitals and doctors that care for them.

Advocates emphasized the economic and fiscal benefits.

“When kids are covered, there’s an immediate and long-term return on investment,” says Imelda Dacones, CEO and president of Northwest Permanente, a medical group. Insured children have fewer expensive emergency room visits and hospitalizations and are more likely to graduate college, she says.

“Oregon will help more kids do better in school, earn higher incomes down the road and ultimately pay more taxes,” says Jim Francesconi, vice president of insurance company Moda Health. “This was the right thing to do for our children, and our communities will also benefit from a stronger economy.”

Even some proponents of immigration limits are not fighting the idea.

“States should decide how their resources are best deployed, but it makes sense that states and local jurisdictions want to make sure that children’s health needs do not go unmet, regardless of their immigration status,” says Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. “While this can be a burden on state and local budgets, the answer is to do a better job of deterring illegal immigration, not denying health care to children.”

The approach to covering children is not as controversial as covering adults who are here illegally, but it is still rarer than covering people who are in the country legally. States besides Oregon that cover undocumented kids include California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Washington.

In the nation’s capital, a locally funded program known as the DC Healthcare Alliance provides coverage for adults without asking questions about immigration status. The Alliance serves low-income District residents who have no other health insurance and don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, the federal program for seniors and people with disabilities. A similar program, the Immigrant Children’s Program, serves people younger than 21 who are not eligible for Medicaid because of their immigration status.

Yesenia Alvarenga, an undocumented immigrant who gets care through the Alliance for herself and other government-funded coverage for her U.S.-born, 8-year-old daughter, says she knows of people moving to D.C. because the cost of medical care out of pocket is prohibitive for many immigrants who do not qualify for insurance elsewhere.

Alvarenga says that people she knows are far more nervous in general about immigration consequences in the current climate than they were several years ago, but that having insurance and clinics in Washington that welcome immigrants make a significant difference in keeping her family healthy.

Alicia Wilson, executive director of La Clinica del Pueblo in Washington, D.C., says her clinic is aware of fears in the community related to immigration but makes efforts to alleviate them. “We work very hard to make sure our clinic is a safe space,” she says.

[This story was originally published by CQ.]