A bill to restore access to health care for immigrants who call Maine home will have a public hearing next week, and advocates are calling for anyone who has a healthcare story to come testify.

“Passing this bill will help to address inequities connected to the social determinants of health,” said Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition Executive Director Mufalo Chitam.  

LD 718, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland, would allow low-income Mainers who are immigrants to get health care through MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program.

Mufalo Chitam

In 2017, Mainers overwhelmingly voted to expand Medicaid, and today it is providing health care for 70,000 people at a critical time for public health. LD 718 closes a significant gap in access to MaineCare for low-income Mainers, since many immigrants did not gain care under that expansion. 

In 1996, Congress barred access to food assistance (SNAP), assistance for the elderly or disabled (SSI), assistance for needy families with children (TANF), and health coverage for low-income families (Medicaid) for all but a few categories of immigrants. But with strong bipartisan support, the Maine legislature exercised its right that year under federal law to use state funds to continue providing assistance to residents in need who are immigrants.

The LePage administration was successful in passing cuts to eligibility for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid for many immigrants in 2011. LD 718 would restore care for both children and adults. 

During the pandemic, Maine saw some of the worst racial and ethnic disparities for COVID-19 in the nation. Part of that was due to lack of basic health care making many low-income immigrants more vulnerable to the virus. Advocates say the bill can help address Maine’s health inequities.

There are a patchwork of programs, including Emergency MaineCare and free care at hospitals, through which immigrants with low income can try to access care. But without health coverage, many low-income Maine immigrants must wait until a condition becomes an emergency to get medical help – endangering their health and putting added stress on emergency departments. 

Advocates say it is more medically and financially sound to provide preventive health care and care for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes than to wait for a health issue to become an emergency. 

The bill will also support immigrants who have formed the backbone of some of Maine’s biggest industries that were considered “essential” during the pandemic, like health care and food production, but have not been able to afford the cost of healthcare. 

“Many members of the immigrant community are low-income workers who rely on public transportation/carpooling to get to work, which increases their exposure.  They live in congregate settings with many others, share entrances and other spaces which make self-isolation/quarantine virtually impossible. Lack of access among these groups to comprehensive health care that can help prevent or manage chronic diseases make people more vulnerable to diseases like COVID-19,” said Chitam.

Advocates can help people provide testimony anonymously, to protect people who are going through the immigration process. For more information about LD 718 and how to submit written or live testimony, contact Maine Equal Justice