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Groups Say Change in Medicaid Will Do Little

They Say Few Illegal Immigrants Apply, So Requiring Citzenship Proof Won't Affect Many
Story Courtesy of The Houston Chronicle
Melanie Markley

The Bush administration's plan to make Medicaid applicants show proof of U.S. citizenship will have little impact on illegal immigrants because few of them apply for the low-income health benefit, Houston immigrant advocates said Monday.

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"I think it's a solution for a nonexistent problem," said Joe Rubio, who chairs the Committee for Justice for Immigrants at the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

The new requirement, which takes effect July 1, is part of a law that was signed into effect on Feb. 8.

Under the new standards, anyone applying for Medicaid must prove their citizenship by showing a birth certificate, a passport or some other acceptable document.

Although Medicaid has always required beneficiaries to be U.S. citizens, many states, including Texas, haven't required people to support their claims.

But the Bush administration has notified states that applicants who fail to show evidence that they are citizens will be denied benefits.

The Republican-led Congress pushed for the new requirement amid mounting concerns of illegal immigration's financial impact on government programs.


Always wary
However, advocates say that illegal immigrants have always been wary of applying for a government benefit that requires citizenship, especially when lying on the application is a federal offense that could lead to criminal prosecution and deportation.

"It's a crime for anyone to defraud the Medicaid program, citizen or noncitizen," said Anne Dunkelberg, assistant director of the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. "Even immigrant advocates have always encouraged immigrant families to be extremely scrupulous in applying for public benefits and to never misrepresent their situation because the consequences for them are very, very serious if they commit fraud."


'We don't even think of it'

At Houston's Casa Juan Diego, where illegal immigrants are given shelter and assistance, co-founder Mark Zwick said everyone knows that noncitizens can't apply for Medicaid.

"We don't even think of it," he said. "It isn't even in the realm of possibility."

Zwick said immigrants can apply for medical benefits through the Harris County Hospital District as long as they reside in the county, but even that is difficult.

Some worry the new requirements will hurt Americans who are entitled to receive Medicaid but don't have immediate access to their citizenship records. Many citizens, especially the elderly, don't have birth certificates, critics of the Medicaid policy say.

Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services, said the agency will try to make the new requirement as easy as possible on clients and will work with those citizens who have lost or never had a document proving citizenship.

melanie.markley@chron.com

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