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  • Writer's pictureAlex Sánchez

Covering Colorado means covering immigrants, too

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

When faced with a health challenge, the best approach is to address it before things get worse.

Tackling health care challenges in the public policy space, on the other hand, is a slow, laborious process that fails to consider the near-term needs of those who would benefit. And, when it comes to making sure health care coverage is available to immigrants, the discussion is too often hijacked by extremist politicians who put political pandering above public health.

California is leading the way in immigrant justice, having become the first state in the country to offer health care services to immigrants regardless of immigration status.

Colorado is not there yet, but we are (slowly) moving in the right direction, especially in the last few legislative sessions.

Thanks to leadership from Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), state lawmakers in 2021 created a path to allow undocumented people to receive reproductive health services through Medicaid.

State lawmakers built on that success this year with Cover All Coloradans (HB 22-1289). Among other things, the measure extends Medicaid and Children’s Basic Health Plan overage to low-income pregnant people and children, regardless of immigration status — but it’s important to understand the timing. The state department of Health Care Policy and Financing has until Jan. 1, 2025, to provide that coverage.

And threats are on the horizon. Three Republican members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation — Reps. Lauren Boebert, Doug Lamborn and Ken Buck — have latched on to the xenophobic idea that we should make health care more expensive, and reduce access to services, via their support for the “No Federal Tax Dollars for Illegal Aliens Health Insurance Act.” (I’ll also note for the record that they chose to use the racist term of “illegal alien” to describe who’s impacted by the bill).

Colorado received a federal Innovation Waiver last year to implement the Colorado Option, a new health care plan being offered in 2023 that is intended to lower costs for consumers and reduce racial health disparities. The waiver allows the state to keep the money it saves the federal government by reducing costs — so-called “pass-through” funds — to provide subsidies to Coloradans, including undocumented immigrants who are not eligible for direct federal help via the Affordable Care Act.

Buck bluntly declared Colorado’s novel approach to reducing costs and expanding care “a slap in the face to American taxpayers who get up, go to work, and are fighting to survive.”

The fact that Congressman Buck thinks that undocumented immigrants don’t fit that description is the real slap in the face. The Latino community is critical to the economic vitality of communities throughout the central-mountain region. Immigrants quite literally built these mountain resort communities and our tourism economy depends on their labor.

Denying health coverage to those working to keep our communities running is at odds with what Voces Unidas de las Montanas and Voces Unidas Action Fund has learned in our outreach and organizing.

Nearly 6 in 10 Latino adults surveyed as part of our Colorado Latino Policy Agenda last year supported expanding health insurance access in Colorado, including for undocumented immigrants. That number jumped to 9 in 10 when we surveyed Latino leaders. Why? Because our community is disproportionately and negatively impacted by the current system. Consider:

  • Hispanic/Latino Coloradans were more likely to be uninsured (with the rate jumping from 10.1% in 2019 to 14.4% last year) even as the state uninsured rate declined from 7.9% in 2019 to 7.5% last year

  • Latinas are three times more likely to be uninsured than non-Hispanics in Colorado, and Latino and Latina children are twice as likely to be uninsured

That can — and must — change.

Colorado is making strides by expanding coverage to cover pregnant people and children regardless of immigration status. But we can’t stop until everyone, regardless of immigration status, can access health care — and we can’t wait until 2025 to make it happen.

Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas Action Fund, a Latino-created, Latino-led advocacy organization working in Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle, Summit, and Lake counties. This opinion editorial was published in the Aspen Daily News and Vail Daily.

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