Illinois health program for undocumented seniors leaves some behind

Illinois health program for undocumented seniors leaves some behind

State lawmakers and policy advocates said they haven’t seen the numbers the department used to justify the carve-outs. “They told us that it’s too expensive,” said state Rep. Delia Ramirez, chief co-sponsor of the legislation that created the Health Benefits for Immigrant Adults program.

But advocates say the cost is well worth it. Research shows that providing primary care for unlawfully present seniors reduces the number of emergency hospital visits, which inevitably get paid by the state or charitable reserves at hospitals and health systems.

“If we don’t spend $100 million on (healthcare for) seniors who are undocumented, it’s not like the state saved $100 million. If we cut the program tomorrow, those costs are still there. It’s just cost shifting. It’s someone else absorbing those costs,” said Andrea Kovach, a senior attorney at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

“(Undocumented) seniors are still getting sick. They’re still having accidents,” she said.

Last year, state lawmakers successfully expanded the program to cover undocumented immigrants age 55 to 64. And last month, Ramirez introduced a bill that would extend Medicaid coverage for noncitizen immigrants ages 19 and older who meet the program’s income requirements. The proposal, dubbed Healthy Illinois for All, would cover nearly 150,000 low-income immigrants who are not eligible for the state Medicaid program, according to the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. (The state already provides healthcare for low-income children under age 18 regardless of immigration status.)

Ramirez, who is running for Congress this year, said she and her colleagues behind the program are working to get the Department of Healthcare and Family Services to fill in the programs’ gaps for seniors. “We’ve made it clear to HFS that we expect (the carved-out services) to be included as we roll out this next program,” she said.

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Picking up where the state leaves off

As state lawmakers work to fill gaps in the program for undocumented seniors, community groups, family members and volunteers try to provide the moral, physical and financial support that institutions and government agencies don’t provide. But looming over them is a demographic bubble that they say will stretch them thin and leave too many seniors behind.

“We need to prepare for this,” said Enrique Jimenez, program director at the Latino Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders Alliance (LAMDA) in Chicago. “We need to prepare better programming, better outreach efforts and resources for this population because they’re not going anywhere.”

The alliance serves more than 100 seniors with memory disorders and more than 300 caregivers from Chicago and nearby suburbs. Many of the patients and caregivers are undocumented, Jimenez said. The alliance offers leisure programming for the seniors, like karaoke and Zumba classes, and trains caregivers on how to manage the illnesses.

“It can really disrupt the whole family and their quality of life. It’s like a domino effect after the illness is detected,” said the group’s co-founder, Constantina Mizis. “Sometimes those caring for the loved one must leave their job to care for them, which then causes economic hardship and thus more stress and trauma. It’s a family disease.”

Jimenez and Mizis applaud the creation of the Health Benefits for Immigrant Adults program. But as the population they serve grows every year, Jimenez is concerned about the alliance’s ability to keep up. “We are already in need of more resources to serve better and provide more resources to the elders and their families. I worry that as the population grows, we just won’t have enough funding,” he said.

And even though there are several organizations and nonprofits like LAMDA that offer resources to these growing populations, many undocumented immigrants are afraid to seek help because they fear deportation, or due to language and technology barriers.Instead, many immigrants without proper documentation, such as Burgos and Ocampo, seek and create community with one another, helping to care for each other, find work, pay off debt, and generally look out for each other.

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Marie Maynes
Marie Maynes is a Sports enthusiast and writes for the Sports section of ANH.