Aid to immigrants lost in translation
After being bombarded with huge bills for her husband’s ER visit, a Korean woman discovered he was eligible for emergency Medicaid—even though their entire family is undocumented. But the Medicaid form was in English. Unable to complete it, the woman had to make three trips to a Medicaid office in Queens before a 15-year-old Korean boy who happened to be there at the same time was able to help her.
About 40% of the uninsured in New York City are immigrants. Covering them is a complicated and politically contentious issue that is often quietly ignored when health care coverage is debated. New York state already defies federal rules under which immigrants are not eligible for public programs until they’ve been here for five years. The state offers even illegal immigrants access to programs such as emergency Medicaid, AIDS drug assistance and prenatal care.
Despite that, the number of uninsured immigrants remains stubbornly high—a function of language barriers, fear of deportation and the overall of the public-assistance system. “Lots of time is often wasted. There is no uniformity in the directions, and they are often misguided,” says Grace S. Lee, community health educator at the Division of Advocacy at the Public Health and Research Center run by Korean Community Services. Immigrants will likely be among the chief beneficiaries of the state’s push to sign up people who are already eligible for insurance. The state Department of Health is running ads on television and radio in both English and Spanish, and it is increasing staff to work with local social services districts, health plans and community-based organizations to promote outreach.
“There is no one silver bullet,” says Deborah Bachrach, deputy commissioner for the Office of Health Insurance Programs at DOH. “We have a multifaceted campaign to reach families that are eligible for health insurance.”