Immigrant families can apply for health insurance without fear

The new health reform law, known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare, could bring peace of mind and the availability of real, affordable coverage for the first time in years for the over 2.5 million Asian American and Pacific Islanders who are uninsured.

The challenge, however, is that many families and individuals who qualify for coverage are holding off applying because they do not know they are eligible and are afraid of providing information about their immigration status.

The good news is that federal immigration officials at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) recently confirmed that immigrant families will not be subject to enforcement actions as a result of applying for insurance coverage. The announcement is a restatement of current ICE policy regarding federal program eligibility.

The policy is important because anyone completing an application at healthcare.gov (known as the new Health Insurance Marketplace) must provide some personal information, including immigration status, to verify identity. Importantly, federal officials will only use the information to determine if a person is eligible for a program. They will not use this information to pursue any kind of immigration enforcement proceeding for the person applying or for other household members.

For mixed immigration status families, this clarification should bring a little peace of mind.

ICE’s announcement to not pursue immigration enforcement against anyone who applies for health coverage through the Marketplace provides critical assurance to many citizens and non-citizens. It promises U.S. citizens who are part of mixed status families–households that may include citizen and non-citizen parents and children or family members with any combination of legal statuses — the ability to apply for health insurance without fear.

This is because, on the eligibility front, a person’s immigration status does affect the kind of health insurance they are eligible for. The ACA expands coverage in two ways: creating new health insurance Marketplaces where individuals and families can shop for and apply for private health insurance and expanding Medicaid, a health program for the low-income.

Naturalized citizens are fully eligible for the ACA and can shop for plans in the Marketplace and may qualify for financial help or public programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) depending on their income. Green card holders and other lawful immigrants are also eligible for coverage in the Marketplace and may be eligible for Medicaid and CHIP depending on the rules in their state. Medicaid and CHIP eligibility is more restricted for immigrants and depends on the state you live in and how long you have had your green card.

Unfortunately, undocumented immigrants or anyone without legal status are prohibited from purchasing coverage in the Marketplace, even with their own funds.

Importantly, even if you are not eligible for coverage yourself, you can still apply for coverage on behalf of family members who may be eligible. This is a common case for parents who do not have legal status but have citizen children who could be eligible for coverage under CHIP, Medicaid or Marketplace plans.

ICE’s clarification is reassuring and hopefully will be influential in ensuring that anyone who is eligible for health insurance under the ACA can actually access it.

Visit APIAHF’s Health Care For Me website for more resources on coverage options for AAPI communities. Healthcare.gov provides a listing of all immigration statuses eligible for Marketplace insurance coverage, available here. If you have questions and are not sure whether you or your family members qualify for coverage, call the Marketplace help center at 1-800-318-2596. Help is available in English and over 150 languages for free.

Kathy Ko Chin is president and chief executive officer of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), a national health justice organization which influences policy, mobilizes communities, and strengthens programs and organizations to improve the health of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Kathy has worked in senior management positions in community-based and philanthropic organizations throughout her 30 year career.

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