Committee endorses bill to expand health coverage to undocumented youth

The legislature’s Human Services Committee on Thursday approved a measure that would expand state-sponsored health coverage to undocumented youth.

Though legislative staff haven’t developed specific estimates on the numbers of children that might be served, advocates have suggested the total would be in the thousands.

“If one child in need is without health care, that is one child too many,” said state Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, co-chairwoman of the committee.

The Democrat-controlled committee voted 11-7 to endorse the bill, which would make undocumented children eligible for the Medicaid health care program known as HUSKY A, and for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, also known as HUSKY B. The former serves children, parents and pregnant women from households earning less than 196 percent of the federal poverty level, while HUSKY B covers children from households that earn between 196 and 318 percent of the federal poverty level.

During a public hearing earlier this week, advocacy groups testified that as many as 17,000 undocumented children and teens — up to age 19 — would qualify for coverage under the bill.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank that supports more liberal immigration policies, Connecticut is estimated to have 7,000 undocumented children younger than 16, and another 18,000 undocumented residents between ages 16 and 24.

The Connecticut-based Center for Children’s Advocacy estimates the per-child cost to join the program is $2,482.

Abercrombie said the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis is expected to develop cost projections for the proposal later this spring.

Meanwhile, Connecticut is facing its own budget challenges. Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration projects state finances, unless adjusted, will run $3.7 billion in deficit over the next two years combined.

Still, supporters of the bill argue there is a real need among one of Connecticut’s most vulnerable populations that cannot be ignored.

“I know this is a bold move, but we are a bold state,” said Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan.

But Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, countered that “being a bold state has made us broke,” adding that Connecticut already is paying a stiff price for decades of fiscal irresponsibility.

“We all want to help people. We may disagree on how to get there,” said Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, echoing Wood’s concerns. “I look at many families struggling today, that are trying to make ends meet, that are here legally.”

And Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, questioned whether the proposed expansion “will encourage further illegal immigration.”

But Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, said the children lacking health care are victims trapped in a larger debate. “The children might not have asked to be trucked along,” she said.

The bill now heads to the state House of Representatives, and could be referred to the Appropriations Committee after a cost estimate has been developed. But it might not be voted upon again as a stand-alone item.

Provided the proposal has sufficient support among the full legislature, the HUSKY B expansion could be incorporated into the omnibus budget bill for the next two fiscal years.

The legislature likely won’t act on that measure before the final weeks of the 2019 session, which adjourns on June 5.

Keith M. Phaneuf is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2019 © The Connecticut Mirror.

kphaneuf@ctmirror.org

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