Undocumented, Low-Income Seniors In Illinois Can Soon Get Publicly Funded Health Coverage

Hospital Medical Equipment
The newly signed FY2021 budget makes Illinois the only state to extend Medicaid-like benefits to seniors, regardless of immigration status. Tim Evanson / Flickr
Hospital Medical Equipment
The newly signed FY2021 budget makes Illinois the only state to extend Medicaid-like benefits to seniors, regardless of immigration status. Tim Evanson / Flickr

Undocumented, Low-Income Seniors In Illinois Can Soon Get Publicly Funded Health Coverage

Rosa remembers it was March 17 when she and her husband began feeling ill.

“We experienced fever and chills, we lost our sense of smell, completely lost our appetite,” the 64-year old native of Mexico recalled in Spanish. WBEZ agreed not to use Rosa’s last name because she is undocumented.

For days, Rosa said she took Tylenol, took showers and applied rubbing alcohol to her body to bring her fever down. She said her sense of smell and taste finally returned three weeks ago, but her husband continues to deal with complications from his diabetes that prevent him from returning to work. Though they were never formally diagnosed, Rosa said she’s certain they had COVID-19 and she would have sought medical care if they had health insurance.

As COVID-19 disproportionately harms communities of color in Illinois, the state has taken steps to increase access to testing and health care. On Wednesday, Gov. JB Pritzker put the ink on the latest of those, by signing the Fiscal Year 2021 budget that extends Medicaid-like health insurance coverage to low-income senior residents, regardless of immigration status. This makes Illinois the first state in the country to expand publicly funded health care coverage to undocumented seniors and seniors who have held green cards for less than five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Advocates of the measure say they expect it will impact up to 1,000 Illinois residents.

“We’re thankful to the [Pritzker] administration for that and are looking forward to aggressively working to figure out how we can quickly cover everyone else,” said Graciela Guzman, director at the Healthy Illinois Campaign, a coalition that seeks to extend health insurance access to all residents of the state. Guzman said her organization believes it will cost the state between $1.5 and $2.6 million to cover seniors in Fiscal Year 2021, which begins July 1.

Guzman said her group and ally organizations initially pushed to extend access to state-funded health insurance to all adult Illinois residents below the federal poverty level, regardless of immigration status. She estimated this would capture 93,000 people, but said the state’s fiscal constraints forced proponents to winnow down the focus this year to a sliver of that group: just those aged 65 and older.

“To even get our foot in the door on this was such a major win for us,” said Andrea Kovach, an attorney specializing in health care at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “And we have every intention of taking that foothold in the door and kicking it wide open for everyone.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, other states have considered expanding state-funded Medicaid-like coverage to seniors, though Illinois is the first to move forward. In 2019, California extended its public health eligibility to undocumented adults between 19 and 26 years of age and plans to expand it further to undocumented seniors in 2022.

For Rosa, the experience of fighting COVID-19 in isolation and without the benefit of any medical assistance, has left deep feelings of trauma. “I honestly suffered a lot emotionally,” she said. “We need this help … because we’ve been living in this country for so many years. And it would be so hard for us to continue [without health care coverage] in this country that we’ve made our home.”

Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.