Colorado Extends Health Coverage to Immigrants Without Legal Status as States Across the U.S. Grapple With Similar Initiatives

FORT COLLINS, Colorado – Gabriel Henao found himself in Colorado after fleeing his native Colombia to escape threats on his life from a guerrilla group. The 44-year-old settled in Fort Collins in July 2022, hoping for a fresh start. However, the severe stomach pain he had been experiencing since his time in Mexico continued to plague him in the United States.

Henao, a former business owner in Colombia, was unable to afford health insurance on his income as a house cleaner and couldn’t seek medical treatment for his stomach pain. As an undocumented immigrant, he did not qualify for Medicaid coverage in Colorado. However, that changed for Henao at the beginning of this month when he gained access to health care coverage through Colorado’s OmniSalud program, which caters to low-income immigrants without legal documentation.

The program, which started accepting enrollments in 2022, initially covered 10,000 people without requiring them to pay premiums. This year, Colorado expanded the number of zero-premium slots to 11,000. Alianza NORCO, a nonprofit organization in northern Colorado, played a crucial role in helping Henao apply to the OmniSalud program.

After receiving care through the program, Henao underwent an appendectomy, which significantly improved his health. He now feels excellent and is grateful for the assistance he has received. Colorado is among a growing number of Democratic-dominated states that are extending health care coverage to a limited number of immigrants who would not otherwise be eligible for public insurance due to their legal status.

Advocates argue that such programs ultimately save money, as insured individuals are more likely to seek treatment for chronic conditions and receive preventive care, thus avoiding costly medical crises. However, as more states face budget constraints, critics argue against spending millions to ensure coverage for unauthorized immigrants.

The pandemic exposed health disparities and prompted states to provide coverage to more people, regardless of their immigration status, according to advocates. California, Oregon, and Washington state also offer health care coverage to people of all ages with incomes below a certain level, regardless of their immigration status. Minnesota is set to follow suit starting in 2025.

In addition, at least 24 states and Washington, D.C., now offer coverage to pregnant immigrant women who are in the five-year waiting period to qualify for Medicaid. California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Washington use state funds or money from the state-federal Children’s Health Insurance Program to offer coverage for a year postpartum, regardless of immigration status. Michigan will eliminate the five-year waiting period for Medicaid for children and pregnant women, covering up to 4,000 children and about 5,500 women.

Henao’s case highlights the struggles and successes of immigrants seeking health care coverage in various states. It also underscores the ongoing debate over budget constraints and the allocation of public resources to provide health care for undocumented immigrants. As the issue continues to evolve, experts and policymakers are closely monitoring the impact of such programs on public health and state budgets.