Scrap federal public charge rule to protect nation’s health

The federal government recently made a change for immigrants and asylum seekers that might — emphasis on might — help them access medical care during the current COVID-19 pandemic. But the effectiveness of the change is questionable.

And it’s certainly no match for what a small western European nation is doing.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in February made the “public charge rule” effective. It punishes immigrants who seek public assistance — healthcare in particular through the federal Medicaid program. The U.S. Supreme Court in a narrow decision unfortunately upheld the rule against a challenge from 17 states led by Washington.

However, federal immigration authorities now say those immigrants who need public assistance will not be penalized if they seek care for COVID-19 or its symptoms. The feds say those who cannot work or attend school and rely on public benefits during the outbreak can later provide documentation that will be considered when their immigration status is judged.

While this temporary federal change in thinking is welcome, the damage of the public charge rule before the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to negate any positive effects. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Neighborhood Health Services, a network of clinics in Yakima County in eastern Washington, expressed fears the public charge rule inhibits immigrants from seeking care.

Even the Trump administration admits this in its own analysis. The feds chillingly predicted that concern and misinformation around the rule could prompt many immigrants, including those who have become legal residents, to disenroll themselves or their U.S. citizen children from health benefits, “fearing they would bring themselves unwanted attention from immigration authorities.”

Contrast this with the action taken by the European nation of Portugal. With 10 million citizens and 135,000 immigrants who achieved resident status in 2019, government leaders recently made a monumental decision. Undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers were granted the same rights as residents, including access to medical care, during a state of emergency to curb the spread of COVID-19. This is effective until July.

The reason: “It is important to guarantee the rights of the most fragile, as is the case of immigrants,” according to the national government.

If the small nation of Portugal can step up and do the sensible thing to protect everyone during an emergency, then the mighty United States should do the same.

Once our nation gets through the pandemic and reassesses how it protects its people, the public charge rule should be scrapped. It punishes the most vulnerable and does nothing to promote improved public health.

We should rely on proven science and medical expertise to make public policy on health care, not an ill-considered and loathsome ideology that provokes fear and puts us all at risk.

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Washington state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler regulates the insurance industry and protects insurance consumers.