For Maciel, an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in the U.S. for 13 years, healthcare has been a constant battle.
At one point, she had severe anemia but was unable to get medication to treat it because of her lack of health insurance. Recently, she said, struggled to get birth control, and the medication she did take damaged her teeth so badly that it became very painful for her to eat. She said that the doctor ignored her complaints, and that when she sought another doctor, she was constantly turned away for being uninsured.
“It’s terrifying and painful and traumatizing to have to battle constantly to be recognized as a person, thanks to my lack of health insurance,” said Maciel, who is a member of the non-profit Make the Road CT. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt alone and I felt sad. It affects me so much that I had a panic attack.”
Maciel was one of dozens of people who crammed into a room at the Capitol on Wednesday to ask the state to expand medicaid access to all undocumented immigrants living in the state. They wore blue t-shirts reading “Healthcare is a Human Right” and brightly colored signs declaring their support for HUSKY for immigrants.
Although the immigrants have the support of many lawmakers in Hartford, undocumented immigrants are living in the United States illegally – a political fight that has played out between those that say the issue is a matter of human rights, others of the law or who oppose immigration, and the nuts and bolts issue of how to pay for the health care, and how much.
According to Luis Luna, the HUSKY4All campaign manager, there are currently 113,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state, 58 percent without healthcare.
“Undocumented community members are also excluded from Husky Medicare and the [Affordable Care Act], which makes preventative care inaccessible and specialized care prohibitively expensive,” said Luna.
State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the Human Services Committee, said she was committed to the expansion of HUSKY for all residents of the state. She said that the policy made sense from a financial perspective as well, given that the state has to reimburse hospitals when uninsured patients require care.
“When it comes to this policy, it makes fiscal sense. We know that preventative care saves money in the long run. We know that we are putting money, as a state, into uncompensated care for those seeking treatment at hospitals. And so we need to look at what this policy would do to save the state money and also protect the lives of Connecticut residents.”
A report from the RAND corporation published last year estimated that the cost of expanding HUSKY to all undocumented immigrants was between $83 and $121 million. Gilchrest told CT Examiner that she expected any appropriations to come out of the general fund.
In 2021, the state opened up HUSKY access to children ages 8 and under, and last year it expanded that coverage to children through age 12. Additionally, if a child is enrolled in HUSKY, they remain covered until they reach the age of 18.
But advocates say those changes aren’t enough.
Suzanne Lagarde, the CEO of Fair Haven Community Health Care, said that 32 percent of the patients at the community health center where she works are uninsured. She said the community health centers also provide care for 25 percent of the state’s Medicaid patients, and the state does not fully reimburse the centers for that care. Lagarde said she feared that the combination of the lack of medicaid reimbursement and the care they give to people without insurance will force community health centers to cut the services they provide.
“Already some health centers are cutting back on providing costly dental services, and without some relief, this cutting back in services is only going to get worse,” said Lagarde.
Lagarde told CT Examiner that the funds that would come from granting HUSKY to undocumented patients would provide a needed additional revenue stream for the health centers.
And Lagarde also said at the press conference that even when the health centers offer primary care to undocumented immigrants, it doesn’t assist with additional medical care those immigrants might need, like XRAYS and MRIs or specialty care.
Stephanie Montoya, for example, was diagnosed with Wolfe-Parkinson-White syndrome as a child, a rare disorder that causes irregular heart rhythms. When she came to the United States after being operated on twice in Peru, a doctor discovered another anomaly in her heart, and told her that she would need to have regular tests done.
After the first test, she said, she received a bill of $5,000.
“I panicked since I knew the test had to be regular, and I could not cover such high expenses over and over. It was very difficult for me to get the necessary help to cover part of them,” she said.
Montoya was able to apply for financial aid at Yale New Haven Hospital. But she said that she has to continue applying for this aid every year, leaving her anxious that she won’t be able to afford her next medical bills.
The immigrants who spoke told stories of being unable to access necessary medication, of using home remedies to manage pain but not treat the condition, and of the dual anxiety of being sick and not knowing how they would pay for healthcare. Some talked about seeing friends who didn’t have insurance die from their medical problems. They also told stories of being treated differently when seeking medical care based on their status as insured or non-insured.
Arlene Angel, a 54-year-old immigrant from Mexico, told CT Examiner that she had been undocumented until about six years ago, when she received legal status. She said that sixteen years ago, when she was undocumented and had no insurance, she underwent an operation twice, with poor results, and still suffers from the consequences.
Being able to get health insurance through her husband’s work, she said, made all the difference.
“Now that I have health insurance, thanks to my husband’s job, everyone will care for me,” she said.
Angel said she had watched two friends who had no insurance die from medical conditions — one who died not long after giving birth from undetected leukemia.
“I speak for them — that it’s fair that there is health insurance in general, for everyone,” she said.