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Proposals to aid NY’s undocumented workers face uphill battle

Advocates for excluded workers gather outside the New York state Capitol in Albany.
Karen DeWitt
Advocates for excluded workers gather outside the New York state Capitol in Albany.

Two measures meant to help undocumented immigrants are facing an uphill battle to be included in the New York state budget, as negotiations go down to the wire.

One of the proposals, known as the “Coverage for All” legislation, would establish a state-funded basic health plan for immigrants who are undocumented and can’t receive coverage through other means. They would be eligible if they earned up to 200% of the federal poverty level. That means a one-person household earning up to $27,180 a year would be eligible; the limit is $46,060 for two income earners and one child.

The measure is backed by a wide range of groups, including the state’s Business Council, New York State Conference of Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, and advocates like the New York Immigration Coalition.

Elisabeth Benjamin with the Community Service Society and co-founder of the Health Care for All New York Campaign, a statewide coalition of over 170 organizations, says the groups are often at odds on other health care issues, but they all say there’s a need for this.

“We don’t always agree with each other,” Benjamin said. “But here we are united. Business, the plans, we know that the hospital industry and the unions also believe very firmly in health care for all, obviously the consumer advocacy community is very much into coverage for all.”

Olga Vazquez, an undocumented immigrant and a board member of the immigrants rights group Make the Road New York, works in child care, but she broke her ankle in January. Without health insurance, she can’t afford the pain medicine she needs or pay $450 per week for the required four months of physical therapy. Speaking through a translator, she says she’s still out of work.

“As a result of all my health care needs, I was unable to return to work as a babysitter,” Vazquez said. “My health should be treated as a right and not a privilege.”

Vazquez says she is also unable to afford preventive care. She says without health insurance, a mammogram costs several hundred dollars.

The proposal, which would provide health care coverage to an estimated 154,000 people, is included in the Senate and Assembly budget plans. They estimate the annual cost at around $345 million, and they say some of the money could be pulled out of other health care funding pools.

But the measure is not included in Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget, and the Democrat’s budget office believes that the program would cost much more – about $1.9 billion a year, and possibly growing to $2.4 billion.

Benjamin says she believes those estimates are too high, but she says the groups are willing to compromise and would agree to some safeguards to hold down costs.

“There are ways to mitigate the spending,” Benjamin said. “You can cap the program. You can do cost mitigation in lots of ways.”

Another proposal would add $3 billion to replenish what’s known as the Excluded Workers Fund, which was established to help undocumented workers weather the pandemic. The $2.1 billion fund was created last April, and ran out of money after just two months of full operation. An estimated 75,000 workers were unable to apply for the funds.

Assemblymember Karines Reyes was one of several lawmakers who recently addressed advocates, who marched outside the state Capitol.

“We are fighting for those extra dollars in the budget, but we’re also fighting for a permanent solution because we cannot continue to exclude so many essential workers,” Reyes said. “Because that’s what you are, essential to the survival of our state.”

But Governor Hochul did not include the proposal in her budget, and both houses of the Democratic-led Legislature are also putting the idea on hold.

Senator Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader, spoke on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom.

“We do have some limitations on our ability to spend,” Gianaris said. “And so we had a lot of priorities.”

Gianaris says undocumented immigrants would benefit from several other proposals in the state budget, including expanded child care, more aid to attend public colleges, and rental assistance. He says the “Coverage for All” proposal, if agreed to by the governor, would also help.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.