Less than a month ago, a family member in Olga Gutierrez’s home in Bridgeport tested positive for COVID-19. But because she and her family are undocumented immigrants, Gutierrez said their options are limited.
“We were terrified,” she said. “We think we that we might have the virus, too. We have not been able to go to the doctor because we are uninsured and we do not have money to cover this.”
Gutierrez is a community leader of Make the Road CT, an organization that provides community support to immigrants. It’s part of a coalition of immigration rights and health care groups that are calling on Gov. Ned Lamont to expand the state’s Medicaid Program, HUSKY Health, to undocumented residents during the pandemic and beyond.
“For us being an undocumented family, it has been very difficult to survive throughout these years in this country, but also and especially through this pandemic,” Gutierrez said Thursday during a teleconference organized by Connecticut Students For a Dream.
There is an estimated 140,000 undocumented immigrants living in Connecticut, according to the Pew Research Center, and a significant portion of the undocumented immigrant population is Hispanic or Latino. According to state data, this ethnicity of people has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, just behind black residents.
Although previous research indicates that between 50% and 75% of unauthorized workers pay income taxes, a majority of people are disqualified from enrolling in public health insurance programs. And they have not been eligible to get pandemic-related federal and state financial assistance.
Maribel Rodriguez, an organizer of the Western Connecticut chapter of the New England Healthcare District 1199 SEIU union, said she sees a lot of workers that can’t get access to health care on a daily basis because they don't have coverage and can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs.
“How are they going to go to the doctor’s if they’re afraid they don’t have the insurance and they don’t have the funds?’ she asked. “And that will not help this pandemic. It will continue to spread this awful pandemic that we are going through.”
Advocacy groups have petitioned the governor and state legislature to expand access to the state’s Medicaid program — particularly Husky A for adults and Husky B for children — even before the pandemic. But they said the COVID-19 outbreak has created urgency around the issue.
In an April 5 executive order, Lamont limited health care costs related to diagnosing and treating COVID-19 for uninsured residents, but immigration advocates said it has not been enough to protect a population that is experiencing illness and employment loss.
Alberto Bernardez, district leader of workers union 32BJ SEIU, said many of those who are still working continue to do so in essential, front-line jobs in cleaning services, construction and maintenance, transportation, personal care and other areas that have higher risks of COVID-19 transmission.
“Without full health coverage, without treatment for underlying conditions that make people susceptible for COVID-19, they will still get sick and still spread the disease,” he said.
Dr. Julia Rosenberg, a pediatrician in New Haven, was among more than 180 health care providers who signed a letter last month to Lamont in support of expanding the HUSKY Health program. She said opening up access to insurance can decrease health disparities and disease burden in the long run.
“Lack of health insurance is a risk not only for those without it and their families, but it’s also a risk to the public health of everyone in our state,” Rosenberg said.