State Rep. Dominique Johnson, D-Norwalk/Westport, and advocates from HUSKY4Immigrants at the Connecticut state Capitol. Gregg Ferraro / HUSKY4Immigrants

Last month, I saw a young woman named Marisol (not her real name, to protect her privacy), who came to my primary care practice suffering from intense pelvic pain. An ultrasound revealed an ovarian cyst nearly the size of a golf ball and as the pain continued to worsen, I was concerned that the ovary may have twisted, blocking all blood flow.

Despite this potential surgical emergency, Marisol did not want to go to the hospital because, as an undocumented woman, she did not have health insurance. While she ultimately chose to accept treatment, she is now in thousands of dollars of medical debt.

Marlene Edelstein

Connecticut has thousands of young people like Marisol. As a nurse practitioner working at a community health center, I regularly care for uninsured patients like Marisol — who are locked out of accessing health insurance simply because of their immigration status. Connecticut can solve this problem by expanding its HUSKY Health program, which provides health insurance to low-income residents.

Currently, HUSKY only covers undocumented children through age 12 and people who are pregnant or postpartum. An estimated 39% of undocumented youth in Connecticut age 18 and under lack health insurance. This figure jumps to 66% for youth ages 19-24.

Legislators may cite cost as a concern and their recently proposed 2024-2025 budget only includes HUSKY expansion up to age 15. However, earlier this session, HB 6616, a bill to expand coverage to undocumented immigrants up to age 19 passed the Human Services Committee. This bill makes financial sense for Connecticut.

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A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that expanding HUSKY to cover more undocumented Connecticut residents would save our hospitals millions of dollars by reducing spending on uncompensated care. The RAND report identified even more savings from undocumented people’s decreased reliance on emergency Medicaid, which covers emergency care to income-eligible individuals regardless of immigration status. In 2021, Connecticut spent $15 million on emergency Medicaid alone. As a state, we have the financial means to help young people like Marisol seek medical attention before it is too late.

The evidence is clear that giving people preventative healthcare early in life significantly improves their chances for a long, healthy life. I have treated too many people with diabetes for whom dialysis, limb amputations, and/or blindness could have been prevented if they had just been able to see a medical provider sooner.

The General Assembly has an opportunity right now to help thousands of undocumented young people get preventive medical care before it’s too late. Our state lawmakers can and must pass House Bill 6616 and expand HUSKY coverage to more income-eligible Connecticut residents regardless of immigration status. And they must increase the funding for raising the age for HUSKY eligibility for immigrants above age 15. Immigrants often work in jobs that do not provide employer-based health insurance, yet they work jobs our society desperately needs: they are our grocery store clerks, restaurant servers, farm workers, construction workers, and healthcare workers.

I have witnessed how someone’s life can change overnight when they have access to health insurance. This year, after HUSKY was extended to all eligible children through age 12, one of my young patients was finally able to see a doctor for his severe obstructive sleep apnea. Now he —and his parents— are able to sleep at night and he is protected from potential consequences such as poor growth and heart disorders.

The Connecticut General Assembly must act now  to extend HUSKY eligibility to more income-eligible residents, regardless of immigration status. Raising the age to 15 years old should not be enough for anyone invested in health equity. Raising the age to 15 will not meet the needs of the majority of my patients.

Investing in our neighbors’ health will yield enormous financial and societal returns, and it is simply the right thing to do.

Marlene Edelstein is an APRN in New Haven.