Oregon Immigrant Healthcare

By: Jesse Pearce

A legislative proposal backed by Governor Kate Brown would provide much-needed healthcare to almost 20,000 children in Oregon. These youth currently do not have access to healthcare due to their status as undocumented immigrants.

This legislation would amend a current Oregon law that provides healthcare to all children under 19, provided that they are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level and are legal Oregon residents. House Bill 2726 and Senate Bill 558 propose to change the language of the law so that a child merely has to reside in Oregon to be eligible for care.

Similar to policies already in place in California, Washington, Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts, the proposal would add approximately 17,600 children to the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid. The bills include plans for publicity and outreach programs to maximize impact. The Oregon Center for Public Policy estimates that the proposal would cost the state $55 million over the next two years.

Governor Kate Brown has supported a bill sponsored by several Oregon legislators that would provide healthcare to thousands of undocumented Oregon children.

The bipartisan proposal has crucial implications for the many undocumented families living in Oregon. Ineligible for federally-funded public health programs because of their immigration status, many undocumented immigrants often work jobs with little or no health benefits. For these workers and their families, health coverage can only be accessed in emergency situations.

Hospitals are required to provide care to anyone who shows up in their emergency rooms with an urgent health issue, regardless of whether they are covered by insurance or not. However, once the patient has been “stabilized,” the care ends, and patients can be discharged without receiving any treatment for serious health conditions.

Additionally, undocumented immigrants are currently eligible to receive emergency care through the Citizen Alien Waived Emergent Medical program (CAWEM). One can apply at any time, and the program does not require applicants to provide proof of citizenship or a social security number. However, the program only covers emergency care and care for pregnant women — not including abortion. The child of a mother receiving CAWEM care at the time of delivery is eligible for care under the program for one year.

The fact that undocumented immigrants are only covered during emergency situations means that many wait to seek medical help until the situation is out of hand. Not only is this detrimental to the health of many undocumented immigrants, but it also means that the government must eventually cover the cost of highly preventable health emergencies. Supporters of HB 2726 and SB 558 have used this fact to argue that providing health coverage to undocumented children could save the state additional costs in the long-term.

Undocumented immigrants can, however, find non-emergency care at so-called “safety-net” clinics located throughout the state. Community Health Centers of Lane County, an organization of safety-net clinics in the Eugene-Springfield area, provides prenatal, pediatric, contraceptive, and dental care to patients on a sliding-scale payment basis.

Uninsured and undocumented immigrants may also be able to find limited medical care at local community centers. Centro Latino Americano, for example, began providing free pediatric care monthly through their Clínica Esperanza this October. Uninsured community members can receive mental health services through the Centro as well, which are also paid on a sliding scale.

People stand in line for health care at PeaceHealth Hospital. The new proposal backed by Governor Brown would extend coverage to all children residing in Oregon.

Some Oregon public schools and universities also provide healthcare services or even insurance plans for uninsured students. The University of Oregon, for example, offers its students a comprehensive health insurance plan for $1,095 per year.

Through these various sources, some undocumented immigrants are able to piece together enough care to get by. However, this network of care is far from comprehensive and can be too expensive for some families, especially for individuals with serious health conditions. The support that can be found within local communities is often not enough to meet the health needs of many undocumented immigrants. For this reason, several Oregonians support the proposal to add undocumented children to the Oregon Health Plan.

One supporter of the proposal, Roz Slovic, a member of Temple Beth Israel’s Tikkun Olam (social action) steering committee, was instrumental in raising funds and finding necessities for an asylum-seeking Venezuelan family that arrived in Eugene last summer.

“I wrote and talked to many people I know to find furniture and clothing for them,” Slovic said. “And I found storage locations for the furniture until they had a home of their own.”

Slovic, along with her daughter and several others, helped organize a brunch hosted by Temple Beth Israel to raise funds for the family, who cannot yet work legally. The family is currently ineligible for the Oregon Health Plan. They must pay for basic care at the Charnelton Community Clinic, a part of the Community Health Centers of Lane County network.

“We hope they can stay healthy and only have periodic colds,” said Slovic. In the case of a more serious medical complication, they would need to go to the emergency room.

If the proposed law passes, the family’s two young children will instantly become eligible for care through the Oregon Health Plan. This could have long-term effects for the children; studies have shown that youth covered by Medicaid are more likely to succeed in school and have less emergency room visits as adults.

House Bill 2726 and Senate Bill 558 propose to change the language of the law so that a child merely has to reside in Oregon to be eligible for care

Jesse Pearce

Not all Oregonians support the proposal, however. Opponents of the bill feel that the projected $55 million price tag is too much for the state to handle. The Oregon legislature is already struggling to close a $1.8 billion budget gap.

Even Senator Jeff Kruse (R-1), one of the sponsors of the Senate version of the bill, acknowledged, “I understand that there may be some budget issues. This may be a very complicated thing before the end of the day.”

Thirty years ago, Slovic and some friends raised money to help cover the expenses of a refugee family from Vietnam. This was before the Affordable Care Act, Community Health Centers of Lane County, and Oregon Health Plan existed. With minimal community resources available, Slovic and her friends did their best to cover the family’s medical expenses.

These days, Slovic says, there are many more resources available to refugees, asylum-seekers, and undocumented immigrants. If HB 2726 and SB 558 pass, they would represent the continuation of a statewide trend of providing more accessible medical services to non-citizen residents of Oregon.


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