Oregon now covering health care for children of immigrants in U.S. illegally
Starting this summer, thousands of children in Marion County became eligible for health care coverage.
The catch: Their parents are in the country illegally. That means, officials expect, that reaching out to these families will be difficult — thanks in large part to the level of rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C.
At the same time that more immigrant families can receive health care coverage, the immigration policies of President Donald Trump have had a "chilling effect" on immigrants, documented or otherwise, seeking services, according to Maria Loredo, chief operating officer for the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, which serves much of Washington and portions of Yamhill counties, both of which also have thousands of individuals in the country illegally.
Last month, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 558, dubbed "Cover All Kids." It allocated $36 million in general fund dollars to the Oregon Health Authority to expand eligibility requirements for Oregon youths. And it did so while changing the definition of "eligible" from "lawfully present" youths to include any children who resident in Oregon.
An estimated 17,600 children, ages 0 to 18, became eligible statewide. It's unknown how many of them are in Marion County.
The theory: Providing regular medical care for young people — including dental, mental health and behavioral health services — is much cheaper than waiting until they are in crisis and seeing them in emergency rooms.
Senate Bill 558 was championed this year by Gov. Kate Brown. It drew bipartisan support in the legislature; one of the chief sponsors was Sen. Brian Boquist.
Neither Brown nor Boquist responded to requests for interviews.
Among the champions of the bill is the Oregon Latino Health Coalition. Executive Director Alberto Moreno said his organization has been pushing for this bill for more than three years, he said.
"It's the right thing to do for these children; for all children," he said from his Portland office.
Moreno said his organization now will make the transition from bill advocate to outreach.
"This will take groups with deep relations and deep trust in the community," he said.
The coalition cited several lawmakers for pushing the bill, including Sens. Boquist and Jeff Kruse, Republicans, and Laurie Monnes Anderson and Arnie Roblan, Democrats. In the House, Moreno pointed to Republicans John Huffman and Andy Olson, as well as Democrats Teresa Alonso Leon (D-Woodburn), Diego Hernandez and Alissa Keny-Guyer.
"We have a moral obligation to support Oregonians who face disparities accessing health care," said Huffman, speaking at the Capitol in July. His district includes The Dalles. "Children rise to the top of that list."
Moreno praised the bipartisan support for the bill.
"We're proud of Oregon," Moreno said. "We're proud of these legislators."
Other supporters of the bill included Northwest Permanente, Providence Health & Services, and Children First for Oregon.
"Oregon is stronger when every child in our state has the opportunity to grow up healthy," said Dave Underriner, Providence chief executive officer, speaking in July.
Passage of SB558 will provide funding for young people who do not qualify for Oregon Health Plan benefits because of their family's immigration status.
With the bill's passage, the question becomes: How can these families be reached?
Facilities like the Virginia Garcia clinics use fliers, then when youths are enrolled, they could receive regular checkups, childhood vaccinations, dental care, mental health care, behavioral health care — on such topics as tobacco, alcohol and drug use — and access to pharmacies. The Virginia Garcia clinics serve 12,000 people now, but officials hope to increase that number to 18,000.
Kasi Woidyla, public relations officer of Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation, said the legislation came about this year — despite a $1.6 billion shortfall at the beginning of the legislative session — because "Oregon is looking at the long game."
Preventative health care is far cheaper than waiting until there's an emergency. And, Woidyla said, "If you don't have kids, you won't have healthy adults."
Woidyla said walk-ins and appointments by immigrant families have declined markedly since the presidential election.
"They don't feel safe coming out. They don't send their kids," she said. "They're not involved in the (health care) services at the same level as before."
Loredo said she believes the new Oregon law will begin to change that.
"Everyone's very hopeful. Just getting the kids in early and the families not having to care about the cost is important," she said. "But first we need them to feel safe. That's so important."