Immigration Status, Public Benefits & Access to Care

Noncitizens make up about 7% percent of the US population. It’s not surprising that they’re more likely to be low-income and uninsured than citizens- in part because of opportunity limitations. In fact, 71% of undocumented adult noncitizens are uninsured.  By and large, many of them rely on Federally Qualified Health Centers for their primary care and other healthcare- in part because FQHCs have sliding fee scale service fees and serve immigrants regardless of their immigration status.

Medicaid generally limits eligibility for immigrants to qualified immigrants with refugee status or veterans and people lawfully present in the US for 5 years or more.  State Medicaid programs can elect to provide coverage to legally present immigrants before the 5-year waiting period ends (Arizona does not).

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (often referred to as PRWORA or welfare reform) is the federal law that created Medicaid’s “qualified immigrant” standard.

Other federal safety net programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) also apply the five-year waiting period for legally present immigrants.

States can get matching funds from CMS when they choose to provide Medicaid coverage to legally present immigrants who are children or pregnant women before the end of the 5-year waiting period.  33 states have elected to cover lawfully residing immigrant children, and 25 states cover legally present pregnant women (Arizona does not).

The Affordable Care Act made it possible for the legally present immigrants who are ineligible for Medicaid (due to being in the five-year waiting period) to qualify for commercial coverage and subsidies on the Federal health insurance marketplace.

Immigrants eligible for Medicaid or employer-sponsored insurance face several coverage and service barriers.  As I mentioned above, immigration officials consider the likelihood of individuals and families becoming a “public charge,” which can result in denied admission to the US or status as a lawful permanent resident.

Fear that using safety net services will mean that they’ll be considered a public charge contributes to some families of mixed immigration status avoiding use of services like TANF, Medicaid, SNAP etc.  Some eligible immigrants avoid services because they think family members will become involved in immigration enforcement actions.

Research findings by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that changes in healthcare use and decreased participation in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program because of this immigration policy.

Anyway, it’s a complicated system but I hope this makes it a little clearer