A pared-back version of a proposal to broaden Medicaid eligibility for Connecticut children without permanent legal status cleared the House early Tuesday and was expected to win final approval in the Senate, but supporters say it didn’t go far enough to help one of the state’s most vulnerable populations.
The latest measure, folded into the state budget, would extend Medicaid coverage, known as HUSKY, to children 15 and younger regardless of their immigration status, so long as their families meet the qualifying income limit. Current law allows kids 12 and younger to access the benefit.
Under the proposal approved Tuesday, children 15 and younger not only are allowed to enroll in the program — they also can keep the coverage through age 19. But those older than 15 when the expansion begins will not be eligible. It would take effect on July 1, 2024.
“While we appreciate that our elected officials have been committed to steady progress, it really is too slow,” said Carolina Bortolleto, a volunteer with the HUSKY for Immigrants Coalition and a co-founder of Connecticut Students for a Dream. “Our view is that a budget is a moral document, and we really need our legislators to prioritize and invest in the health of our most marginalized populations. Right now this budget doesn’t do that.”
The effort to extend Medicaid to children without permanent legal status has been a gradual and sometimes frustrating journey for many advocates. In 2021, legislators passed a bill opening the program to undocumented kids 8 and younger but delayed the launch of that expansion until Jan. 1, 2023. In 2022, they broadened the population to include those 12 and younger.
This year, a measure was introduced expanding it to everyone 25 and younger, regardless of immigration status. The Affordable Care Act allows children and young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance plans through age 26, and the idea was to mirror that policy.
But before the bill was passed out of the Human Services Committee, it was amended to only include undocumented children 18 and younger. And then a budget proposed by the Appropriations Committee in April scaled it back further, to those 15 and younger.
In the draft of the state budget introduced on Monday, the most modest version survived. The proposal also directs the state’s social services commissioner to study the cost and benefits of opening the program to those 25 and younger.
“No other state has made progress this slowly,” Bartolleto said. “I think it sets a bad precedent to other states looking to do the same.
“Increasing it to age 15 really is too slow of a [progression], and it cuts off young people from accessing health care at a crucial point in their lives. There really isn’t a difference between a 15-year-old and 16-year-old, and it doesn’t make sense that some will get access to health care and some won’t.”
“We thank our elected officials for their commitment to steady progress in increasing access to health care for our immigrant community,” said Luis Luna, a manager with the HUSKY for Immigrants Coalition. “However, we also need to be clear — increasing the age of HUSKY eligibility for immigrants from 12 to only 15 years old disregards the needs of our immigrant young people.”
The 15-and-under age range was settled on because of financial constraints, lawmakers said. Along with competing requests for aid, legislative leaders have had to be mindful of the state spending cap, which follows a formula to keep overall growth in line with increases in household income or inflation — whichever is larger.
“If you look at almost all of the initiatives that went forward, they went up, but they weren’t up to the degree that everybody was asking for because we just did not have the revenue,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, a co-chair of the Appropriations Committee.
“We used everything we could … to try and keep the state going in a positive direction, just not to the degree that advocates and legislators really wanted,” she said. “But my main intent was to make sure that we keep moving forward.”
Despite the scaled-back proposal, some celebrated the small gains this year.
“It’s good that they’re increasing the age,” said Olga Gutiérrez, of Bridgeport. “The kids are the first priority.”
Gutiérrez came to the United States from Honduras with her husband and two kids. Their family does not have access to insurance coverage because of their immigration status. Once, Gutiérrez went to the hospital and left with a $5,000 bill. She hasn’t been back since.
Many advocates continue to demand coverage for everyone, not just children, regardless of immigration status.
Jackie Soria, who lives in East Hartford, came to Connecticut from Peru after the pandemic exacerbated the political turmoil already affecting the country.
Soria’s 13-year-old daughter, Sandra, has been struggling with depression as she adjusts to life in the U.S. Her son, Sebastián, 17, has a wisdom tooth that needs removal. She’s looked around for low-cost options for both of them, but hasn’t been able to find adequate care that she can afford to pay for without insurance.
“Maybe we don’t have immigration status but that shouldn’t be a barrier,” Soria said. “It shouldn’t be something that doesn’t allow us to reach the dreams and goals that many of us came here with as mothers — to give our kids the best futures possible.”
California and the District of Columbia both passed laws expanding Medicaid to all residents, regardless of immigration status, that met those states’ income limits. Another 10 states cover all children, with three of those — Oregon, New York, and Illinois — also extending coverage to some adults, also based on income. Massachusetts provides only primary and preventive care to all children.
Connecticut’s state budget passed the House Tuesday with a vote of 139 to 12 and was expected to clear the Senate the same day.
Advocates say they are gearing up for another push next year to widen the eligibility further.
“It’s continued progress and it’s welcome. But it’s not enough,” said Jay Sicklick, deputy director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy. “It’s disappointing. But something is better than nothing … and we’ll be back next year.”
The portraits included in this article come from a photo project launched by the HUSKY 4 Immigrants Coalition to photograph their members. View the full project here.