Everyone should have access to affordable, comprehensive and compassionate health care. As our nation continues to reel from COVID-19 and unjust disparities in health care resulting from centuries of structural racism, it’s clearer than ever that our collective health and well-being depend on it. As a health care provider and an immigrant herself, Dr. Johana Oviedo knows this first-hand.
Dr. Oviedo moved to the United States with her mom when she was nine years old. When her mom tried to enroll her in school, she found she had to provide proof of her daughter’s vaccinations. At the time, it was nearly impossible to get those records from their native Colombia, and because they were in the U.S. without documentation, basic health services, even those aimed at keeping entire communities safe, were beyond their reach. On top of that, neither of them spoke the language fluently and Dr. Oviedo’s mother didn’t understand the U.S. health care system enough to know where to go to acquire those vaccinations.
Dr. Oviedo, now an obstetrician-gynecologist and Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, practices in New York City, where thanks to the leadership of community groups and advocacy organizations, pregnant women and children are covered by Medicaid regardless of their immigration status. She doesn’t have to worry about whether her patients can afford care—she can just serve them. Whether they’re seeking abortion care or prenatal care, her patients don’t have to put off seeing a doctor because they don’t know how they’ll pay for it or because they’re afraid they’ll be asked about their status. Getting treatment early means less complicated care and leads to better outcomes. New York has also made sure to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment under emergency Medicaid so that everyone can access this critical care regardless of their documentation.
In most of the country, our political systems have built unnecessary barriers for immigrants who need to get to the doctor. Many immigrants with documentation must currently wait five years before they can enroll in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), even if they are otherwise eligible. Undocumented immigrants are completely excluded from these programs and even barred from purchasing insurance from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Marketplace.
No one living in this country should have to wait for years or be denied access to reproductive health care. When people have access to preventive care, they can keep themselves, their families and their communities healthy. Contrast Dr. Oviedo’s patients with National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum member Shatha Algamal’s experience. Shatha moved to Atlanta with her husband two years ago and, despite having a low income, can’t get health coverage through Medicaid because of her immigration status. Being excluded from accessing health coverage has had a formidable impact on Shatha’s own health, her finances and her struggle to start a family. She was unable to afford prenatal care and lost her first pregnancy after 16 hours of bleeding. Her bill for health care after her miscarriage was nearly $4,000. During her second pregnancy, Shatha applied for financial aid at a local hospital. Her child was born three months premature and died, leaving Shatha and her husband with a hospital bill of nearly $7,000. Shatha is pregnant again and still struggles to afford adequate care. She and her husband have found no other recourse than to hope for the best.
We know that if health care isn’t affordable, then it’s out of reach for the majority of families working to make ends meet. Noncitizens in this country are significantly more likely than citizens to be uninsured. Without insurance, immigrants are forced to navigate a patchwork of care, relying on community health centers or paying directly out of pocket.
The public health crisis precipitated by the novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed the many ways our country has failed our most vulnerable. Immigrant communities, which have been caught in the gaps of our country’s safety net for decades, are being devastated by the effects of this pandemic. Latinx folks, Pacific Islanders, Black people and other people of color across the country are at a significantly higher risk of contracting the virus and they have less access to health care and greater exposure to stress from state violence and institutional racism.
Health care shouldn’t be a privilege for a select few in this country. We can’t protect our country by denying entire communities access to testing, treatment or essential reproductive health care. We don’t live in bubbles based on our identities and viruses do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or national origin.
Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Health Equity and Access Under the Law (HEAL) for Immigrant Women and Families Act, which would open up access to health care for immigrants. Under the HEAL for Immigrant Women and Families Act, people like Shatha would get the crucial and comprehensive health care that is essential to their agency, their lives and their families. Shatha would receive the same quality care as the people Dr. Oviedo serves. Passing this bill would demonstrate this country’s commitment to health access for everyone—for all of us who have made the U.S. our home, with no exclusions and no exceptions. Every person should be able to get affordable reproductive health care no matter how long they have been here or the status they have been granted, especially now.
Ann Marie Benitez is the senior director of government relations at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.