What does healthcare have to do with immigration reform?

Hepatitis B and C are chronic "silent killer" diseases that affect 490 million people globally and can lead to liver cancer and death if untreated. In the U.S., lawful permanent residents must wait five years before they are eligible for public benefit programs like Medicaid which cover much needed health services such as hepatitis B vaccination.

The new immigration reform bill being considered by Congress could make people wait 10 years for lawful permanent resident status – and then an additional five years to receive Medicaid. For recent immigrants who have hepatitis B or are at risk,  this means reduced access to the healthcare system, including hepatitis B screenings and vaccines that could save lives.  For example, pregnant mothers ineligible for Medicaid and unable to get hepatitis B screenings and preventive measures will have an increased risk of passing hepatitis B onto their children.

With 1 out of every 10 Asian Americans already with hepatitis B, can we afford to prohibit immigrants from participating in Medicaid, and from receiving necessary screening and vaccinations? That will only increase the overall number of individuals living with hepatitis B.

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Furthermore, the Senate bill excludes individuals with “provisional status” (status prior to becoming a lawfully permanent resident) for up to five years from receiving subsidies that make it affordable to purchase health plans through the new healthcare law.

The current immigration reforms will dramatically affect the health of immigrants and the Senate bill does nothing less than force certain low-income immigrant communities out of the health system.

But we can help to change the story of health access for low-income immigrants, to reduce the high rates of hepatitis B in AA & NHOPI and other immigrant communities. We need to push for policies that improve our nation’s public health. We must urge Congress to make health care accessible and affordable for low-income immigrants in order to combat diseases like hepatitis B. Write to your legislator to commemorate World Hepatitis Day and discuss the connections between health restrictions on immigrants and how they impact health outcomes. Ask them to improve the health of immigrant communities.

Caballero, M.P.H., is the executive director of the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations (AAPCHO). He is also the vice-chair of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, a board member of the American Diabetes Association, and a past member of the National Diabetes Education Program’s executive committee.