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Attorney General William Tong

03/20/2020

AG Tong Demands Suspension of Public Charge Rule During Crisis

Government statement “utterly fails” to encourage coverage, testing

(Hartford, CT) – In a letter to federal immigration officials, Attorney General William Tong joined a coalition of 18 attorneys general demanding that the Trump Administration clearly and unequivocally suspend its “Public Charge” rule during the COVID-19 crisis.

Following a March 6 letter from the attorneys general, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services shared an online “alert” stating that COVID-19 related testing and care would not be considered in an immigrant’s public charge assessment “even if such treatment is provided or paid for by one or more public benefits, as defined in the rule.”

But, the alert contained internally contradictory and confusing language, leaving unacceptable uncertainty. Specifically, the alert exempts COVID-19 care from the public charge assessment, but seemingly continues to consider enrollment in Medicaid prior to illness. This leaves immigrants in a nearly impossible position of only being able to enroll in life saving health benefits after becoming ill.

“There can be no ambiguity right now—every single person in our country needs access to medical care. The Trump Administration’s alert claims immigrants will not be punished for seeking COVID-19 care, but leaves in place dangerous deterrents to accessing Medicaid. Are people supposed to sign-up for Medicaid only after getting sick? This makes zero sense. The whole rule needs to be immediately scrapped,” said Attorney General Tong.

The Public Charge rule allows the federal government to deny green cards and visas to immigrants who are deemed likely to use government assistance programs, including health care programs like Medicaid. The rule is a scheme to deter legal immigrants and their families from seeking access to essential medical care, healthy food and safe housing.

Connecticut is part of a multistate coalition actively participating in a legal challenge to the rule, which went into effect nationwide last month after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a temporary injunction blocking implementation. Nearly 200,000 Connecticut residents are now in danger of losing access to services like food assistance, Medicaid, and Section 8 housing vouchers.

“If DHS is attempting to ensure noncitizens in our communities remain enrolled in Medicaid so they can use Medicaid services should they have symptoms of COVID-19, the Alert fails to achieve this,” the attorneys general’s letter states. “And likewise, if DHS is attempting to ensure that noncitizens seek testing and treatment for COVID-19 without fear of public charge consequences, the Alert also utterly fails to achieve this.”

“The Alert fails to recognize that in order to receive adequate health services, our residents need adequate health insurance benefits,” the letter continues. “To achieve DHS’s stated goal of encouraging noncitizens to seek testing and treatment for COVID-19, noncitizens must be encouraged to enroll or remain enrolled in health insurance programs, including Medicaid, and they must be assured that such enrollment during this dire national health emergency will not be considered in any future public charge determination.”

The conflicting statements could cause immigrants to forgo medical treatment that could be critical to protecting our communities from the spread of the virus, the attorneys general write.

“Given the grave danger facing our nation’s health and economy, it is imperative that DHS not chill immigrants from enrolling in Medicaid or using Medicaid benefits for any purpose until the COVID-19 crisis is over. Under the Alert, however, noncitizens who remain enrolled in Medicaid continue to risk their green cards and visas. As DHS previously conceded, this will prompt immigrants to disenroll from Medicaid and lead to an ‘increased prevalence of communicable diseases,’ as the nation is now experiencing at a horrifying rate.

“To protect the residents of our states and the rest of the country, we ask that DHS immediately announce that the Rule is stayed pending successful containment of COVID-19. Short of that, however, it is imperative that DHS at least make clear that enrollment in Medicaid and the use of Medicaid benefits for any reason will not be considered in the public charge assessment. Given that these benefits were not considered in the public charge assessment for many years prior to DHS’s recent change of policy, it is inexplicably harmful for the agency to begin counting them now, during the outbreak of a lethal global pandemic.”

The letter is signed by the attorneys general of Washington, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

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Elizabeth Benton
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