This week, President Obama chose the venerable White House Rose Garden to give himself a well-deserved pat on the back. After years of promising affordable health care, followed by more years of criticism from opponents -- rants that continue today -- and an abysmal program rollout marred by computer malfunctions, the president announced that 7.1 million Americans had signed up by the March 31 deadline for private insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces.
The president stood firmly for affordable health care, and the public has responded. Millions who were previously uninsured have reached for the safety net offered by our government. The president and his team deserve great credit.
Notably, the president did not declare "mission accomplished," as all of us who have worked on this issue know there are still more hurdles to cross. President Obama promised to work on signing up more who remain uninsured.
From our vantage point, we see two areas that need more work to maintain fairness in the new health care system he promised when he first ran for president. The first involves eligible immigrant families who tried to enroll but could not due to the IT problems that plagued the program from day one. The second area concerns those who were unfairly declared ineligible for the program from its inception and should be added soon.
The National Immigration Law Center has received many reports from eligible immigrants who were unable to enroll because of system errors. Some tried dozens of times to enroll but ran into problems and simply gave up out of frustration. U.S. citizen children of immigrants could not be signed up. Lawfully present immigrants were erroneously denied subsidies because the electronic system that verifies immigration status was experiencing technical difficulties.
Many immigrants had difficulty getting through the identification verification because the system relies on Experian, the private sector credit reporting bureau, to validate the identity of the individual filling out the application -- which, in immigrant families, is often a parent applying not for herself, but for her eligible children. The reality is that immigrants, as well as many others including young people early in their careers and low-wage workers in general, do not have the level of credit history required to get through Experian's identification verification. Immigrants are also less likely to have the identity documents currently accepted when the Experian process fails. It makes sense to verify the information submitted on the application, such as an applicant's immigration status and the family's income. However, the extra identity-verification step has put the brakes on countless immigrant families' applications. As a result, eligible children are going without coverage.
The administration has clarified that individuals who tried to apply but could not complete the process due to technical problems such as these may qualify for a "special enrollment period." That means everyone who tried to apply before April 1, but could not, should apply for a special enrollment period and keep trying until their applications are successful.
However, while this clarification is welcome and necessary, it holds no value until the technical glitches are all fixed. The administration must resolve to fix the outstanding technical glitches and must alert all affected individuals when those glitches are fixed.
A more difficult issue concerns those who were left out of the program by the president for impractical political reasons. I am particularly concerned about the young immigrants who qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) but who are not eligible for Obamacare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Though they are allowed to live in the U.S. and work and pay taxes, just like other immigrants who are eligible, unlike other immigrants they cannot apply for the health care program subsidized by their taxes.
Nor have we forgotten that immigrants without documents have been barred from paying their fair share for insurance coverage on the exchanges, even though they, too, pay taxes. Their inclusion could help bring down the costs for all of us.
A flu epidemic has no borders, and neither should a health care program designed to promote the general welfare of our children and our communities.
Unfortunately, those left out cannot expect coverage once a computer glitch is repaired but must rely on basic humanity and commonsense to overcome the gross exclusion by Congress and expand coverage under the health care law. To start, Congress should consider a recent proposal by Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham, D-NM, to let all lawfully present immigrants have access to affordable health care.
Immigrants' desire to pay what they can afford for health care is no less than that of the Colorado woman President Obama referred to during his remarks in the Rose Garden. "I felt like a human being again," the woman wrote to the president. "I felt that I had value."
All human beings have value, regardless of their country of origin or socioeconomic status. We are confident the administration will fix the technological problems and hope it will make the sound decision to allow DACA recipients into Obamacare. We can only hope Congress can correct the immorality and shortsighted public policy of denying immigrants access to affordable health care.