Up until last year, 22-year-old Yenimar Cortez spent her whole life growing up without health insurance.
“In high school, I started realizing my mom, when she was struggling to pay to take us to checkups,” she said. “We would go to free clinics when we were younger as well. We had to wake up really early and make sure we got in line, because if they had no spaces, you couldn’t go.”
Although still undocumented, Cortez, who lives in New Haven, was able to get insurance through her job as an organizer with Connecticut Students for a Dream, an immigration resource and advocacy organization.
But it’s a bittersweet reality -- her undocumented parents still face limited health care options. Her mom struggles with diabetes, her dad with asthma and other issues.
“They don’t really talk about it because they don’t want to worry us, but we know that it worries them,” Cortez said. “So, knowing your parents are going through this is definitely an everyday thing. Every single time I work or I come to a rally, I have my family in mind.”
Activists this week are pushing the state legislature to pass a bill that would expand HUSKY Health, the state’s Medicaid program, to include certain undocumented residents, who make up an estimated 120,000 people currently ineligible for most kinds of insurance.
But right now, some people live in families of mixed-status, meaning individual family members may have more health insurance options because they have U.S. citizenship, green cards or specific jobs. Advocates say these residents can wind up shouldering a combination of relief, anxiety and guilt as they watch their loved ones continue to struggle without care.
Dr. Ben Oldfield said he sees this dynamic play out in families at Fair Haven Community Health Center every day.
“Probably the most common way we see that, sort of the most common permutation of that, would be when children are insured -- let’s say by Medicaid -- and parents are uninsured and uninsurable,” he said.
The community health center serves a large immigrant population in Greater New Haven and is able to offer health care services to undocumented people either for free or on a sliding scale.
But getting preventive screenings or complex medical care can still be challenging, Oldfield said.
“These things require usually some logistic work, some communication by phone or maybe by paper to apply for a specific program that may grant you that test for free or at least partially pay for it,” he said, “and that burden oftentimes falls on whoever in the family can best navigate those sorts of bureaucratic issues.”
Those family members can end up being kids and teens growing up in undocumented or mixed-status families who take on more active roles in their family’s health needs beginning at a young age.
Katia Daley began accompanying her parents to doctor’s visits at 13 years old, when her family moved to the U.S. without documentation. They all struggled with access to health care.
Daley, now 25 and living in Vernon, eventually got health coverage through her job with Students for a Dream. She’s also now a green card holder after getting married. But she said it’s been stressful to watch her family continue to suffer.
“I’m grateful that I’m able to get health care, but I cried on car rides with my dad to the health center, the community health center, because that’s his only option,” she said.
Daley said she’s developed anxiety over the years, some of it directly related to her worries about her family. For a while, she was getting mental health care services with her insurance until she had a temporary disruption in coverage.
“I haven’t had the courage to go back to it, because it has to do something with guilt as well, right,” she said. “It’s amazing that I’m able to get these services, but if my little sister who is still undocumented is not able to get that, and she needs it more than I because ... she has internalized all that pain, again, it’s difficult.”
Daley added that talking with family members about navigating the health care system as an insured person can feel out of place. It’s why she hopes that one day, her parents and sister will have the same health care opportunities she has now.
“It will definitely be a relief for my family,” she said.
The legislation to expand insurance to certain people regardless of immigration status passed through both the state human services and appropriations committees after a public hearing in March.
Expanding access to HUSKY Health could cost the state between $67 million and $116 million in fiscal year 2022, and between $200 million and $258 million in fiscal year 2023, according to an April fiscal analysis.
Lawmakers supporting the bill have said this could help reduce health disparities and better support communities and front-line workers who’ve been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic this past year.
Those opposed have noted a significant cost to the state in years ahead. The regular legislative session ends June 9.