By Kathreen Harrison

“Even when they have raked thousands of crates of blueberries, shucked hundreds of thousands of pounds of lobster, harvested broccoli, packed potatoes, washed our dishes, cooked our meals, built our houses and cleaned our toilets, they cannot afford to go to a simple check up at the doctor.” – Crystal Cron, president of Presente!Maine

On April 21, the Health and Human Services Committee of the 130th Maine Legislature will hold a Work session for LD 718, An Act To Improve the Health of Maine Residents by Closing Coverage Gaps in the MaineCare Program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which restores MaineCare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage to noncitizen residents of Maine. If passed, the bill will allow all Maine residents access to health care, regardless of immigration status – coverage that was in place in Maine from 1996 until 2011, when then-Governor LePage and his administration stripped some immigrants of health coverage.

Representative Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland presented the bill to the committee. “Last year, Maine made national headlines by having some of the worst racial disparities in the nation when it came to COVID-19. This is in large part due to the fact that many Mainers are ineligible to receive affordable health care because of their immigration status. Passing this bill, LD718, is one of the most important things the legislature can do to advance health equity in Maine,” said Talbot Ross. Cosponsors of LD718 are Representatives Craven of Lewiston, Dunphy of Old Town, Speaker Fecteau of Biddeford, Meyer of Eliot, Tepler of Topsham, and Senator Claxton of Androscoggin.

Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross

If the numbers and passion of those testifying are any indication, Mainers want health coverage restored to their immigrant neighbors. Ninety people testified in support of the bill, either in person or in writing, at its April 15 hearing. One person wrote in opposition, citing the title of the bill, rather than its content. Those testifying in support included lawyers, many doctors, community health works, and other health practitioners, business people,  asylum seekers, social service providers, members of the Wabanki community, members of faith groups, case workers, students, parents, grandparents. Several people spoke entirely in Spanish, with interpretation. The mood was urgent. The hearing lasted for hours. The legislators listened intently. Testimony concerned health equity; racial justice; human suffering; neighborliness; a moral imperative.

In addition, Talbot Ross and many others pointed out that immigrants are the backbone of the workforce in Maine, in food production, manufacturing, and healthcare, and contribute more than $62million a year in state and local taxes. Ben Conniff, co-founder of Luke’s Lobster, said “I’ve never been to a seafood plant where immigrants weren’t the backbone. Without them the industry would collapse. And immigrants stepped up, put their lives on the line during the pandemic, when others stayed home. After this it would be morally unjust and a terrible decision for the industry [not to pass this bill]. We are facing a huge shortage of employees and need to do everything we can.”

Abdulkerim Said, Director of New Mainers Public Health Initiative

Testimony describing struggles to get by without health care were harrowing. Abdulkerim Said, executive director of New Mainers Public Health Initiative (NMPHI), based in Lewiston, talked about many immigrants who avoid seeking health care until their problem escalates to a crisis. “This is not a smart way to care for the residents of our state,” he said. Henoc Ngoy, of NMPHI said that two young members of the Congolese community had died within a month of each other, very suddenly. They had been unable to seek health care because of the cost. Julia Brown, Esq. of Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP), noted that nationally, one out of every three deaths from COVID has been linked to lack of insurance.

Henoc Ngoy

Twenty-two year old Chance Isazu, who pays taxes, but suffers from a number of debilitating ailments, told of skipping his medication because of fear he wouldn’t be able to afford a refill. “People are forced to suffer in silence and make choices,” he said. Andrea Steward, a volunteer with Welcoming Immigrant Neighbors (WIN), said that 50% of the children WIN serves have never received medical care since they arrived in Maine – often after traumatic journeys to get here. One boy has 21 cavities, she said. His teeth are totally black. Another boy was referred to eye care, but his parents can’t afford to take him. Anne Marie Wolf, who volunteers to help asylum seekers, said she knows a woman whose teeth are falling out after months spent in detention. Others mentioned children whose school performance suffers because they have trouble seeing.

Hamda Ahmed, of NMPHI, said that she lives “…with the pressure of getting sick or being hospitalized without protection.” She said that throughout the pandemic, people she knows have been using gift cards they were given to purchase insulin, or to pay for other medical supplies they couldn’t afford, rather than for the food the gift cards were intended to buy. Citing the lack of health coverage, Cron said, “Many people got very sick during the pandemic and waited until the last minute to go to the doctor.” Amran Osman, a student at University of Southern Maine, spoke of students who work while they attend school, but still can’t afford health care when they need it.

“Passing this bill is one of the most important things the legislature can do to improve health care in this state,” said Talbot Ross. “We will be a healthier, stronger state if we do.”

The committee will hold a vote on LD718 in the coming weeks, possibly as early as April 21.