Tens of thousands of children and young adults in Massachusetts are unable to access the health care they need because their immigration status poses a barrier, advocates told state legislators Tuesday.
Lawmakers on the Health Care Financing Committee heard testimony on bills that would extend comprehensive MassHealth coverage to Massachusetts residents under age 21 who are currently ineligible only because of their immigration status.
Children without legal immigration status are not eligible for full MassHealth coverage. Bill supporters said that leaves families to navigate a complicated patchwork of safety net programs that have limits on coverage for some services like mental health, dental care or prescription drugs, and do not cover others, like eyeglasses or home health care.
Chelsea resident Ruth Gomez told the committee that she and her family came here from Honduras to seek a better life for her son Dylan, who was born without eyes, is mostly deaf, and has severe developmental disabilities and limited mobility.
Speaking in Spanish with an interpreter, Gomez said the limited insurance Dylan initially had didn’t cover much of what he needed, including walking aids, hearing aids, behavioral therapies and tests recommended by doctors. When the family received a new immigration status this year and Dylan could get standard MassHealth, it “made a world of difference,” she said.
“Before, feeding him used to be very stressful for me because I was was so fearful he would choke every time,” Gomez said, “Now, with the new health coverage, we have access to a treatment which helps him swallow with more ease, allowing Dylan to eat solid foods and have better nutrition.”
Covering more than 2 million people, the state Medicaid program MassHealth is the single largest piece of the state budget.
In this year’s roughly $56 billion budget, still under negotiation between the House and Senate, lawmakers are eyeing a funding level somewhere around $20 billion, much of which would be reimbursed by the federal government.
The bill pending before the committee would direct state health officials to “maximize federal financial participation for the benefits” that would be extended to previously ineligible children, but says that the benefits shouldn’t be conditioned on whether federal money is available.
Similar bills have been filed on Beacon Hill multiple times over the years, but legislative leaders have never brought them to a floor for a vote.
This year’s push comes as the state Senate is also seeking a law change that would let Massachusetts high school graduates without legal immigration status pay the lower, in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, and as the state’s shelter system struggled to meet demand amid an influx of migrants.
Twelve other states already have similar laws on their books, according to Health Care for All, including Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine.
Casey Thompson, an assistant attorney general in AG Andrea Campbell’s children’s justice unit, said there are between 30,000 and 48,000 children and young adults in Massachusetts whose only barrier for insurance eligibility is their immigration status.
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