Renewed child health law to aid immigrants

Eduardo A. de Oliveira | 2/11/2009, 4:42 a.m.

SAUGUS, Mass. — Shocked, fearful and helpless. That’s how Samuel Goncalves felt in 2007, shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 18.

Goncalves, who immigrated to the U.S. from Brazil with his family, had no health insurance. Even though he was a legal immigrant, he didn’t qualify for Medicaid or any other government-run health program. He’d only had a green card for three years — two years shy of the five required by federal law back then.

The five-year waiting period for legal immigrant children to qualify for health assistance was removed last week as President Barack Obama signed into law the Children’s Health Insurance Reauthorization Act of 2009, which renews and expands the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

SCHIP will enable states to cover more than 4 million uninsured children from low-income families — including legal immigrant children — by 2013, while continuing coverage for 7 million youngsters already covered by the program.

In Congress, the debate over SCHIP was considered by many to be a preview of the upcoming debate over health care reform. Although the U.S. invests about $2 trillion per year in health care, 45 million Americans remain uninsured.

“Ev­­en though we’re considered the wealthiest country on Earth, the health and well-being of Americas’ children is worse than that of every other developed country in the world,” said Charles Homer, pediatrician and CEO of the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality (NICHQ), a Cambridge-based nonprofit organization.

“This bill also provides states with funding for measuring the quality of service,” said Homer. “It not only insures that kids get in the door, but when they do, that the service is as good as it should be.”

For the past two years, NICHQ has worked with a pediatric national committee and pushed SCHIP with several leaders, such as Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

SCHIP was first enacted in 1997 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. But the trail from its conception to congressional approval of the reauthorization bill last week was long and rocky.

Since 2007, the House had voted on the proposal seven times. But it faced fierce resistance from Republicans like U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who denounced the bill as “a foundation stone for socialized medicine.” President Bush vetoed two versions of the bill approved by Congress.

A major reason for the Washington, D.C., gridlock was a proposal by Democrats that SCHIP cover all legal immigrant children without imposing the five-year delay. The version signed into law requires states to verify that children covered by the program are United States citizens or legal residents. But Republicans argued that states won’t be able to offset the costs.

“Whenever the government wants to start a war or to promote tax cuts, they always finds resources,” said Keith P. Jones, CEO of Soul Touchin’ Experiences, a consulting company that helps policymakers and nonprofit organizations understand the needs of minority groups.

“This bill is an investment in America. More of our kids are obese or developing type 2 diabetes in early ages. They are not as healthy today as they were when I was a kid, 25 years ago,” said Jones, whose wife is the daughter of Haitian immigrants.