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Immigrants sue Arizona over slash in Medicaid benefits

Immigrants in Arizona are suing the state in federal court after it reduced their Medicaid benefits to “emergency only” visits.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, lawfully present immigrants receive limited federal coverage while undocumented immigrants do not receive and are not allowed to purchase coverage.

Lawfully present immigrants may enroll in a qualified health plan from state insurance agencies and are eligible for premium tax credits and lower copayments. Since April 2009, states can choose to provide Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program benefits to lawfully residing children and pregnant women without a waiting period.

Current federal Medicaid eligibility restrictions include a waiting period of five or more years  for most lawfully residing, low-income adult immigrants. Coverage may be available to immigrants in some states.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Alma Sanchez Haro, an immigrant who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years but recently had her Medicaid status transferred to “emergency only” although her immigration status has not changed.

Haro, 48, was a victim of battery. She and fellow plaintiff Aita Darhee, a 30-year-old refugee from Nepal, sued Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) Director Thomas Betlach on July 22. They are represented by attorney Ellen Katz.

Arizona has been in violation of health laws for immigrants for a year and a half, according to a complaint filed by the plaintiffs. They each received a letter outlining their reduced coverage. The AHCCCS admitted in October 2015 that 3,500 immigrants had their coverage wrongfully reduced but claimed that all were reinstated.
But the complaint said these wrongful reductions continued into 2016, causing people with chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, mental health conditions, asthma and others, to be left without medical care for long periods of time.

Haro received notice of her coverage reduction in April. As a victim of domestic violence, she received a special visa in 2003 through the Violence Against Women Act, making her eligible for health benefits. She is a diabetic and was told the change occurred because she had been a permanent resident for less than five years. She became a legal resident of Arizona in 2015.

Darjee, her husband and her son became eligible for full AHCCCS benefits after moving to the United States in 2011. A year later they became permanent legal residents and notified the state agency which subsequently reduced their benefits to emergency only. Benefits were restored but then reduced again in July.

Darjee’s husband has diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.

“They are very stressed over this situation,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff Darjee is especially worried about her husband.”

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, approved by Congress in 1996, included a clause that immigrants must live in the United States for five years before qualifying for public benefits. The lawsuit says that federal law exempts certain immigrants from that rule and makes them eligible for full AHCCCS benefits.

Darjee and Haro are seeking class certification, a declaratory judgment currently being violated by AHCCCS, reinstatement of full Medicaid benefits and injunction and court costs.

Attorneys with the National Health Law Program in Los Angeles will be assisting Katz in the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

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