Advocates plan campaign on immigrants’ health care

By Russell Contreras
Associated Press / April 25, 2011

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Immigrant advocates in Massachusetts say they are preparing an “intense’’ lobbying effort to help about 20,000 legal immigrants who are at risk of losing their state-sponsored health care coverage under a proposal to slash state spending.

The Massachusetts Immigrants and Refugee Advocacy Coalition said immigrants and their advocates plan in the coming days to make phone calls, send letters, and meet with state legislators in an attempt to save funding for the Commonwealth Care Bridge program.

The program provides basic health care for about 20,000 immigrants classified as “aliens with special status.’’ Early this month, the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee voted to eliminate funding for the program — about $50 million — as state lawmakers try to reduce overall spending to close an estimated $1.9 billion budget gap.

But Eva Millona, the coalition’s executive director, said cutting the program will drive up health care costs for the state, because the immigrants will be forced to use more expensive emergency care. “These are residents who pay taxes; they contribute and already get less coverage than everyone else,’’ she said. “And now they will get nothing.’’

The release of the House budget proposal is just one step in the process of crafting a state spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The full House is scheduled to begin taking up the budget today. The state Senate has to release and debate its own version of the budget.

Governor Deval Patrick created the Bridge program, as it is commonly known, in 2009 after a budgetary action canceled the same legal immigrants’ coverage under CommCare. The creation came after immigrant advocates rallied when some legal immigrants received letters that their coverage would end.

Hilary Greene, director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield, said this time she feared that the immigrants in the program will be blindsided and surprised about their coverage ending, since most aren’t aware of the proposal to cut the program. “They could be shocked when they get that letter,’’ said Greene. “So we are working to educate everyone.’’

Greene said if the program is cut, about 400 to 600 immigrants living in the Berkshires would lose basic health care coverage.

Millona said advocates appreciate that money is tight and everyone is affected by budget restraints. “We understand that everybody is suffering right now,’’ she said. “But immigrants are suffering the most.’’

Millona said advocates are working “around the clock’’ to persuade key lawmakers to restore funding for the program.

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, and the state Senate’s lone Latina legislator, said lawmakers can restore funding for the program through budget amendments.

“Our commitment to universal health care coverage is one of the things that makes Massachusetts great, and it is a matter of basic fairness that everyone who’s paying into our system should be able to access it,’’ Chang-Diaz said in a prepared statement.

US Census data released last month showed that the state’s immigrant population boomed in the last 10 years.