The ACA’s Immigration Quirk

I was amused but not surprised to read that in announcing her support for expanding Arizona’s Medicaid program, Governor Jan Brewer pointed to the fact that without the expansion, only non-citizens with incomes under the poverty level would be eligible for insurance under the ACA. What Brewer didn’t say, was that the ACA’s apparent preference for non-citizens results from precisely the type of anti-immigrant laws with which Gov. Brewer is usually associated.

 In 1996, shortly after California passed the notorious Proposition 187 which denied state public benefits to undocumented immigrants, Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as the Welfare Reform Act.  Among other things, this law imposes a 5 year waiting period before most legal permanent residents can enroll in the federal Medicaid program. The law also barred many other immigrants who are lawfully residing within the U.S. from Medicaid altogether.

The ACA did not repeal the provisions in the Welfare Reform Act limiting immigrants’ access to Medicaid. Instead, Congress sought to provide coverage to lawfully residing immigrants by permitting those with incomes under 100% of the Federal Poverty Level to receive subsidies to purchase insurance on the exchanges. Those subsidies were not necessary for citizens with such low incomes because Congress assumed that they would be brought into the Medicaid program.

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