A healthcare advocate calls Gov. Pritzker’s suspension of Medicaid-style insurance for undocumented residents ‘unacceptable’
Update (7/5/23) The Governor’s office reacts to WNIJ's story with a statement related to the health care appropriation for qualifying residents regardless of immigration status.
Related to cost estimates, a spokesperson for the Pritzker administration said, "There have been multiple rounds of attempts to estimate the cost of this program, but because the undocumented population is historically a very hard population to get an accurate count of, those multiple rounds have also had to be reworked because the program was expanded twice."
The Governor’s office said, "No asylum seekers are covered under this program since they are in the U.S. legally and are documented. The federal government shares in their healthcare costs."
The spokesperson said the state "will continue to cover more than 63,000 people and all enrollment caps and suspension are temporary pending appropriation."
Governor J.B. Pritzker issued an emergency ruling making cuts to a Medicaid-like program for qualifying immigrant residents in Illinois. One healthcare advocate was more than displeased with the announcement.
“Many people have used the word disappointed,’ said Carmen Velásquez, a leader in Healthy Illinois, a coalition advocating for Medicaid coverage for all, regardless of immigration status.
“Well, that's a lot of BS. I’m outraged, scandalized that they pulled the rug under us after stating that they would support the whole issue of health care is for all -- including the undocumented,” Velásquez said.
She’s a long-time healthcare champion who helped establish Alivio Medical Center in the 1980’s. It’s a network of clinics serving primarily those who are uninsured, low-income, undocumented residents in the Chicago area. She was among those who rallied in Chicago calling for Governor Pritzker to reverse his decision to suspend new enrollments to the health care insurance program.
Members of the Latino Legislative Caucus were proponents of the program that offered Medicaid to qualifying low-income immigrants aged 42 and up. The emergency ruling was made just two weeks before the cutoff date on which new enrollees will no longer be accepted. The program for adults aged 65 and above will be capped at 16,500 -- among other changes.
Current enrollees will now have to pay a $100 co-pay for a hospital emergency room visit, among other changes.
Medicaid recipients in the traditional Medicaid program pay only three dollars and ninety cents in comparison.
In 2020, the Medicaid-like health insurance was first expanded to all adults in Illinois aged 64 and up, regardless of immigration status. It was extended to all those aged 42 and up last year.
In a statement from the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, it states the changes to the program were necessary to bring costs to the level allotted in the state budget. Unlike traditional Medicaid, the federal government doesn’t reimburse the state fully for medical coverage of undocumented residents.
Velásquez said the governor’s decision to suspend the program is about possible future political aspirations.
“The governor has turned his back, the governor politically says, ‘I want to be the President of the United States, so I can't be too easy to those without papers,’” Velásquez said.
“’I have to say, this cost too much money, I have to be able to say I am fiscally responsible...’ BS,” she said.
“His job is to make sure that the people in his state have a quality of life, that they are able to be productive individuals where they live and contribute to society. We contribute to society. We are the caretakers, we are the people who clean your houses, we are the people who take care of you in the hospitals -- It’s unacceptable,” Velásquez said.
A spokesperson for the governor said in a statement, “The implication that this prudent fiscal decision is politically motivated simply does not make any sense to anyone who works in politics. Spending more money than we have and never having to make difficult policy decisions to live within our means would be the politically expedient thing to do, but that is the opposite of what Gov. Pritzker is doing.”
The state budget ultimately included $550 million dollars for the health care program.
Throughout budgetary talks, there was a lot of wrangling about the cost of the program. The Pritzker Administration hired a consulting firm whose estimates for fiscal year 2024 project the program’s costs ballooning 400 percent from what the administration originally proposed. The Latino Legislative Caucus, Congresswoman Delia Ramirez and healthcare advocates challenge those numbers. WNIJ previously reported how the consultants themselves admit doubt in their estimates.
Some Republicans including State Senator Dave Syverson have said migrants, i.e., asylum seekers, will drive up enrollment in the program. WNIJ has reported some migrants already qualify for healthcare through a federal program designated for asylum seekers. And the overwhelming majority of migrants tend to be young since the journey to reach the U.S. is dangerous for many, because it requires trekking through very rough terrain. They would be considered too young to qualify for the healthcare coverage.
Health experts and advocates argue that improving access to healthcare increases preventative care. Without preventative care, folks may turn up at an emergency room when a health problem has only gotten worse or when it’s already too late, leading to a premature death. Also, they say it will end up costing the government much more to treat.
“It will be much more costly if we do not have healthcare for human beings including the undocumented. In the long [run] it will cost society more to take care of us,” she said.
She said it’s more than a matter of a misunderstanding or an underappreciation of the role that low-income immigrants, who a majority are essential workers, have in the economy.
“There is racism involved in this issue,” Velásquez said.
“Why is it that it's okay for us to be in your home and clean your house, take care of your kids, and we love you for doing that, ‘but we don't want you to take money out of our coffers for your healthcare, because that costs a lot of money. And you're not here legally anyway,” she said.
“Push come to shove, whether we want to say it or not, the issue is that we are not respected, a la mera hora. People just don't care,” Velásquez said.
As Illinois reverts its efforts to increase healthcare access to its low-income undocumented residents, California leads to expand it.
In 2024, California is expected to be the first state to offer its Medicaid-style health insurance called Medi-Cal to all low-income California residents regardless of immigration status.