Patrick says health care for immigrants may not come to end

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / August 27, 2010

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More than 23,000 Massachusetts residents — legal immigrants who have been in the country for less than five years — are scheduled to lose their health insurance by the end of this year, but Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday he hopes to continue their coverage using recently announced federal funds.

Immigrant and consumer advocates are urging lawmakers to fund a limited program for these immigrants using a portion of an estimated $450 million in federal aid recently sent to Massachusetts to help pay for Medicaid programs. But lawmakers and the governor have yet to introduce a spending plan for the funds, and lawmakers showed this summer that they want to spread the funds among many programs.

Without additional funds, Patrick administration officials say, resources are only available to maintain the program through December.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep it going,’’ Patrick said in an interview yesterday. “We’re working with the Legislature on how to use some of the [federal Medicaid] money to continue that program, and I think it’s only fair. These are taxpayers. They contribute to our society through their work and through their taxes, and I think that we get good value out of this program.’’

This particular population of immigrants — called “aliens with special status’’ — has been singled out because the federal government declines to reimburse states for their care. Those who support cutting their coverage have argued that covering these immigrants is too costly, given the economy.

Under the national health care law signed by President Obama in February, the federal government will begin reimbursing states who cover special-status immigrants in 2014.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has said he hopes to move a spending plan for the new federal aid during informal sessions that will occur through the fall, when a single member can block the advancement of any proposal. He has not indicated whether the immigrant health care program would be included.

The federal funds have become enmeshed in an intensifying gubernatorial campaign, with Patrick’s rivals. Republican Charles D. Baker and independent Timothy P. Cahill, urging him to refrain from spending them until later in the fiscal year.

While stutter-stepping about their own plans to use the money — both initially said the state should bank it before acknowledging that federal law requires states to spend the funds — both have since argued that the state should wait a few months before spending it.

Uncertainty about the program means that for the second straight year, this population of legal immigrants is faced with the loss of health coverage. Last year, lawmakers sought to cut them entirely, but, pressed by the governor, agreed to fund limited coverage at $40 million.

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