FORT COLLINS, Colorado – When Gabriel Henao fled Colombia to escape a threatening guerrilla group, he never imagined the challenges he would face in seeking medical care in his new home. Settling in Fort Collins, Colorado, Henao struggled with severe stomach pain that left him bedridden for days at a time during his time in Mexico and continued to plague him in the United States. A lack of health insurance coverage and limited income made it difficult for him to seek proper medical attention.
However, a glimmer of hope emerged for Henao at the beginning of this month when he received care through Colorado’s OmniSalud program, which provides health care coverage to low-income immigrants in the country without legal documentation. The program, which initially covered 10,000 people in 2022 without requiring them to pay premiums, has now expanded to 11,000 zero-premium slots this year.
Alianza NORCO, a nonprofit organization supporting immigrants in northern Colorado, assisted Henao in applying for the OmniSalud program, giving him access to the care he desperately needed. As a result, Henao was able to undergo an appendectomy and is now feeling excellent, expressing relief at being able to access the medical care he needed.
Colorado is part of a growing number of states with Democratic leadership 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 save money in the long run, as insured individuals are more likely to receive treatment for chronic conditions and get preventive care, ultimately avoiding expensive medical crises that burden taxpayers and raise premiums for the insured.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the health disparities it has revealed have prompted states to expand health care coverage to more people, regardless of their immigration status. In addition to Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington state offer health care coverage to individuals below a certain income level, regardless of their immigration status.
However, critics argue that such expansions are costly and place a burden on the state’s already strained budget. While advocates emphasize the importance of ensuring the health of all members of the community to protect public health, dissenting voices express concerns about the financial implications and strain on health care resources.
Despite the pushback, more states like Michigan, Illinois, and California are making strides in expanding Medicaid coverage to certain groups of immigrants, acknowledging the value of investing in health care for all individuals, regardless of their legal status. The recognition of the interconnectedness of public health and the potential cost savings of preventive care have bolstered efforts to expand coverage to underserved populations.
In an effort to address the disparities in access to health care, states are also considering new laws and programs to extend coverage to immigrant communities. The debate over the economic impact of such expansions continues, with proponents emphasizing the long-term benefits of preventive care and opponents raising concerns about the strain on state resources.
As states grapple with budget constraints and differing perspectives on health care access for immigrants, the conversation surrounding the expansion of coverage initiatives is likely to continue. In the meantime, individuals like Henao, who have struggled to access necessary medical care, hope to see more states implement programs similar to Colorado’s OmniSalud to support their communities and provide essential health care services.