Undocumented, Uninsured and Unprotected: The Struggle to Get Healthcare in the U.S.A.

By Amedeo Max Bettauer, age 10

The American humorist Josh Billings once said, “Health is like money, we never have a true idea of its value until we lose it.” Census data from 2017 shows that for 27 million Americans and 615,000 New Yorkers, that concept is hauntingly true. The growing epidemic of uninsurance, which has always been a problem in the United States, has become worse under President Donald Trump. According to a Gallup poll, the number of Americans without health insurance has increased by 7 million since Obama left office.

Latinos have the highest rate of uninsurance in the United States, and for undocumented immigrants health insurance is even more difficult to obtain. The Hastings Center reports that 500,000 New Yorkers are undocumented immigrants, and half of them are uninsured. 

A major law that has restricted undocumented immigrants from getting healthcare is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliaction Act (PRWORA) of 1996. It prohibited undocumented immigrants from getting public health insurance services like Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Even though the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) provided more access to free or low-cost healthcare and decreased the number of uninsured Latinos, 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are not eligible for healthcare under the ACA. 

In an interview with IndyKids, Dr. Diana Ramirez-Baron medical director of Grameen VidaSana, a clinic and community center for undocumented women in Queens, New York, said that in addition to legal barriers many of her patients lack health insurance due to fear. “Some of my patients are afraid of being identified as undocumented and being deported,” she said. “The very hostile environment and policies of Trump’s administration against undocumented immigrants is compromising their health and well-being.” 

Still, many groups are fighting to get undocumented immigrants the healthcare they need. The Institute for Family Health for instance, provides free healthcare to uninsured people, regardless of immigration status. Immigrants rights organization Make the Road NY enrolls 3,500 people with limited English in health insurance plans per year. In January 2020, they released the Respect and Dignity for All Platform, which urges New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a state-funded health plan for all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status. At Grameen VidaSana, patients receive “primary care 24/7 in person and through phone visits, health education, wellness activities like Zumba, yoga and meditation, crafts and lots of celebrations.”  

National solutions, like Medicare for All, would require the government to provide all Americans with health coverage regardless of citizenship. Under the current system, some people are covered by the government, some people are covered by private insurance, and many people, like undocumented immigrants, are excluded overall. Dr. Ramirez-Baron says that our poor healthcare system is due to private companies exploiting it. “Medicare for All should cover undocumented immigrants not only because it is the humane and right thing to do, but also because we as a society must return to them what they contribute to this country, from strengthening and enriching a multicultural society to growing our economy.”

Unfortunately, Grameen VidaSana recently lost its funding and will close in May 2020. However VidaSana will still connect their patients with resources in the community. Dr. Ramirez-Baron says that her patients “fear for the future, but at the same time they tend to be very optimistic that things will get better. The faith they have in their kids and in their future gives them the strength to continue the fight for survival.”

Epidemic: Something harmful that spreads or develops rapidly.

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