Millions of Immigrants Face Denial of Free Coronavirus Testing

Millions of immigrants will be denied free coronavirus tests in the middle of a public health crisis because Medicaid excludes some green-card holders, young immigrants brought to this country as minors, and others.

Legislation (Public Law 116-127) President Donald Trump signed into law March 18 to respond to the new coronavirus includes a Medicaid state option to cover testing for the uninsured. Medicaid is a federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. However, because the program is linked to Medicaid’s immigration standards, some green-card holders, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, and many other people lawfully residing in the U.S. are left out.

“Tens of millions of people cannot go untested or untreated, in order for us to contain this,” Manar Waheed, senior legislative and advocacy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview. “This is a primary, fundamental issue for the public health crisis.”

Photographer: Betsy Joles/Getty Images
Former government officials say the U.S. health-care system lacks the capacity to combat the coronavirus if it continues to spread.

Groups including the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center unsuccessfully lobbied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to address the issue in the third virus response bill that cleared the House Friday.

Pelosi’s own bill, released Monday, would have made the change, but that language was omitted from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (H.R. 748), the $2 trillion bill that originated in the Senate.

Medicaid Ineligible

The virus doesn’t care about a person’s race, class or immigration status, Avideh Moussavian, legislative director at the National Immigration Law Center, said in an interview. This moment should be a lesson of how interconnected our fates are, regardless of one’s immigration status, she added.

About 4 million lawful permanent residents—green-card holders—aren’t eligible to become citizens because they haven’t met residency requirements and therefore don’t qualify for Medicaid, according to the Department of Homeland Security. For most, the residency requirement is five years, though spouses of U.S. citizens generally need three years. Not all of those people are uninsured or in need of Medicaid to cover their virus test.

Roughly 700,000 DACA recipients and approximately 300,000 residents with temporary protected status also can’t qualify. The undocumented population in the U.S. is likely around 12 million, according to the most recent DHS data.

Migrants who fail to qualify for Medicaid and free testing under that program may be able to get tested at reduced cost or free at community health centers. However, these centers, like other providers and hospitals, are struggling to access the tests and supplies such as protective equipment needed to effectively do Covid-19 screening, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. One Philadelphia health center that serves 6,000 patients has secured just 20 Covid-19 test kits in the last month, according to the association.

Congress would need to revise the free services to meet the Emergency Medicaid standard, which is available to people whose income levels would qualify for Medicaid but are ineligible because of their immigration status, the ACLU said. Lawmakers are already discussing a fourth coronavirus relief package. Yet the Senate is scheduled to return April 20 at the soonest, meaning millions of migrants who need testing may not be able to get tested between now and then.

“If your interest is addressing the public health crisis, everybody who needs it has to have access to testing and care,” Waheed said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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