News & Events

Patrick set to keep healthcare for poor (MS)

Governor Deval Patrick plans to announce a spending proposal tomorrow that retains medical coverage for some 30,000 legal immigrants who are at risk of losing it, and will also agree to ensure dental coverage for another 700,000 of the state’s poorest residents, administration officials said yesterday.

State-subsidized coverage for the two groups has been endangered this year as Patrick and lawmakers struggled to craft a budget amid an economic downturn that has sharply curtailed tax revenues. The governor will propose the healthcare spending for legal immigrants as an amendment to the state’s $27.4-billion budget that he will sign tomorrow.

Patrick’s proposal for the legal immigrants is a short-term fix that will require more work with lawmakers, who have resisted the coverage because it is especially expensive for the state. To maintain state-subsidized care for immigrants beyond August, Patrick will call on legislators, health advocates, and state regulators to patch together a long-term solution.

“This plan continues our commitment to healthcare reform and will ensure that health coverage for thousands of residents will not fall victim to the recession and shrinking budgets,’’ said a senior adminis tration official who was briefed on the blueprint.

The 30,000 immigrants affected have “special status’’ in the immigration system and have been in the country less than five years. Many are seeking asylum from war-ravaged regions, such as Iraq, Somalia, and the Sudan. Advocates say the group includes people who have survived torture or were victims of human trafficking and have serious mental health and post-traumatic problems that require treatment.

Healthcare and immigrant advocates, who pushed hard for the cuts to be restored, last night said they were encouraged by the news.

“It indicates that the administration is seriously looking at the needs of these 30,000 immigrants,’’ said Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Center, the state’s largest immigrant group. “It also shows the governor’s commitment to preserving the values of healthcare reform in Massachusetts.’’

Spokesmen for Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said they had not seen the proposals so could not comment on them.

The officials said that among the amendments Patrick will submit tomorrow when he signs the state’s $27.4 billion budget is a proposal to spend $70 million, or about half of the annual cost to cover the group. They declined to say where in the budget this money would come from.

Under Patrick’s proposal, in August, the immigrants would receive care through two other state programs: MassHealth Limited, which would cover emergencies, and the Health Safety Net for the rest of their care.

By September, the officials said, the aim is that state regulators and administration officials will have devised an alternative method for coverage by renegotiating and redesigning the contracts with the health insurance companies that participate in the state program, or by securing a change in federal policy to get more matching funds. They declined to elaborate.

In an earlier interview with the Globe, Senator Steven Panagiotakos, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers were not targeting immigrants, but proposed the cuts because the 30,000 “special status’’ immigrants at issue do not qualify for matching federal subsidies and thus are more expensive for the state to insure.

“The governor is clearly is trying to find a way to maintain coverage despite the tremendous revenue shortfall,’’ said Brian Rosman, research director for Health Care for All, a large consumer group.

He said Patrick’s plan to retain dental coverage indicates that the governor understands the importance of such care to overall health.

“We’re hopeful that these 700,000 adults don’t have to worry again this year that their dental benefits are in jeopardy,’’ Rosman said.

Health and dental coverage for huge swaths of low-income residents has been in limbo for more than a month, as lawmakers and the governor hatched dueling plans to close a multibillion-dollar gap in the state’s fiscal budget, which begins July 1.

Patrick, a staunch supporter of legal immigrants, had included healthcare coverage for them in Commonwealth Care, the subsidized program that is the centerpiece of the state’s 2006 health insurance overhaul. But the Senate Ways and Means Committee cut them out in its proposed blueprint released last month.

Hoping to salvage care for the immigrants, Patrick then crafted a list of other healthcare areas to cut, including the dental coverage for 700,000 adults in Commonwealth Care and in MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program. The governor’s revised budget proposal retained coverage for the immigrants.

But the Legislature threw Patrick a curveball: Lawmakers included his suggested cuts in their final budget released June 19, but applied the savings toward other areas of the budget, and once again, cut out the immigrants. However, they restored dental coverage for the 700,000.

When Patrick signs the budget tomorrow and submits his amendments and vetoes, the ball will be back in the Legislature’s court. If lawmakers choose once again to cut healthcare coverage for the legal immigrants, they must override Patrick’s amendment by a two-thirds margin vote in both the House and the Senate.