Immigrant activists and advocates rallied in Albany on Wednesday, calling for the passage of legislation that would expand state-funded health insurance to undocumented immigrants. The so-called “Coverage for All” bill has some momentum going into budget season in Albany, but its fate remains uncertain in the hands of state leaders who will ultimately craft the spending plan.
Activists led a march and held a die-in at the Capitol to bring attention to the issue. “If we had something so simple as access to health care, we would have been in a better position to fight this pandemic and not have to bury so many of our brothers and sisters,” Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes said at a press conference before the march. Growing up undocumented, she recalled her confusion as a child over her grandmother’s inability to access health insurance despite working full time.
A report from the Citizens Budget Commission and the Community Service Society estimates that the legislation would cover about 46,000 undocumented immigrants who currently go without health insurance in New York because of their status. Because they lack documentation, they don’t qualify for federal aid like Medicaid. Nor can they get insured through the state-funded Essential Plan, a public option created through the Affordable Care Act, due to the need for a valid visa. So the idea behind “Coverage for All” is to remove the visa requirement, expanding the state-funded public option to low-income immigrants who were previously ineligible.
The bill has already made progress in both chambers. In the Assembly, it has already passed both the Health and Codes Committees. It now awaits action by the Ways and Means Committee, a crucial next step in getting the legislation to the floor for a vote. It has moved a little bit slower in the state Senate, having passed just the Health Committee before it was sent to the Finance Committee. “Access to health coverage should not depend on your immigration status,” Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, who sponsors the bill, said on Wednesday.
The legislation made it this far in the Assembly in 2019 before stalling in the Ways and Means Committee for the rest of that year and all of 2020. Lawmakers didn’t take any action last year either. But the state Senate version has not previously made it out of the Health Committee, a noted difference this year as the campaign for its passage continues to pick up energy in the wake of devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The push comes as lawmakers prepare to pass the state budget, due on April 1. Gov. Kathy Hochul didn’t include the proposal as part of her executive budget plan, one of a handful of immigrant advocates’ priorities not to make the cut. Hochul also declined to add new funding for the Excluded Workers fund,which provided unemployment insurance to undocumented people. The $2.1 billion dollar fund ran out of money with more undocumented immigrants in need of aid from their time unemployed during the pandemic. So far, Hochul has given no public indication that she would support expanding the state-funded Essential Plan. “We’re disappointed that we haven’t heard the governor take a position on this vital issue,” Make the Road New York Co-Executive Director Theo Oshiro said in a statement to City & State. “It’s important that she steps up to show clear support and work to ensure it’s in the final budget.” A spokesperson for the governor did not return a request for comment before publication time.
The next big step in the budget process will be the one-house budgets presented by the state Senate and the Assembly. Each chamber releases its own budget proposal as a starting point for negotiations with the governor. Little is known yet about what lawmakers will include in their priorities, although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reportedly wants to cut legislative proposals from the budget due to abuse of the practice by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Whether this may apply to “Coverage for All,” whose price tag of $345 million would arguably make the budget an appropriate place to pass it, remains unclear.
On the Senate side, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, chair of the Health Committee and the sponsor of the bill, said in a text that he’s working to get the proposal included in the state budget, but so far has not gotten any assurances about whether that will happen. Spokespeople for Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not return a request for comment before publication time.
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