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Health care plan for immigrants given a lifeline

Health care plan for immigrants given a lifeline

Money found for extra month

By Kyle Cheney

State House News Service / December 30, 2010

Despite administration warnings that a health coverage program that serves about 22,000 legal immigrants would run out of money by the end of December, Governor Deval Patrick now says funding exists to keep the program alive through January.

Over the next month, the administration intends to “build legislative support" to fund the program for at least another five months, according to a spokesman for the state’s budget office.

The program provides coverage for immigrants known as “aliens with special status," who have been singled out because the federal government declines to reimburse states for their care. Those immigrants are legal, green card holders who have been in the country for fewer than five years.

Under a federal health care overhaul signed by President Obama in March, the federal government will begin reimbursing states for these immigrants’ care in 2014.

Last year, lawmakers cut those immigrants from Commonwealth Care, a state-subsidized insurance program for low-income residents, to balance the state budget. Individuals eligible for Commonwealth Care earn less than $33,000 a year, while eligible couples must earn below about $45,000, and a family of four must earn below about $66,000.

In response to the cut, Patrick proposed funding a scaled-back health insurance program for the immigrants. Eventually, legislators agreed to provide $40 million for limited coverage, about a third of what the governor initially estimated it would cost to fully fund coverage for that population.

That limited plan — offered by CeltiCare, a recent entrant in the Massachusetts marketplace — excluded coverage for vision, dental, hospice, and skilled nursing and came with significant copayment increases. The CeltiCare plan, known as the Commonwealth Care Bridge Program, was reauthorized at $60 million in this year’s budget.

Advocates for immigrants said news of the additional month of funding was a relief and offers an opportunity for the immigrant community to build support to fund the program further. But a spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition said additional funding appears to be “a long shot."

“It’s going to be difficult to get the Legislature to commit funding, because they’ve had opportunities to do so in the past and they’ve chosen not to," said the spokesman, Frank Soults. Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and supporter of the Bridge program, said she would work to build support among her colleagues for additional funding.

“It is quite simply the right thing to do on many fronts," she said.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.