Xenophobia's victims

June 20, 2007

Just as feared, a hateful effort to prevent illegal immigrants from getting health care through Medicaid has taken its greatest toll instead on Americans.

Hundreds of thousands of needy people, many of them children, are believed to have been denied Medicaid coverage or dumped from the Medicaid rolls over the past year because they can't produce the documents now required to prove eligibility, according to The Sun's Gady A. Epstein.

The absurdity of this requirement played out in agonizing detail for Renell Francine Ray, a 50-year resident of West Baltimore, who lost her Medicaid benefits because she couldn't get her birth certificate from Virginia without a valid state ID - and couldn't get a valid state ID without her birth certificate.

Congress, with the most virulent anti-illegal-immigrant lawmakers no longer in control, should move quickly to repeal this outrage. It was a poorly crafted solution to a problem more fantasy than fact that hurt the people it was supposed to protect.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican, was incensed that under previous law, Medicaid applicants had merely to check a box to indicate their citizenship. He feared his low-income constituents were being squeezed out by illegals, and moved to require formal documentation in legislation that took effect last summer.

But the desperately poor people who qualify for Medicaid are the least likely Americans to have such documents. Birth certificates are long ago lost. Photo IDs may never have existed. Passports are too expensive for folks not given to overseas travel.

In Maryland, 17,000 more people were denied Medicaid coverage between August and April than during the same period the year before for failure to provide the proper documents. Officials believe many of those dropped were citizens such as Ms. Ray who were thwarted by the paperwork bureaucracy. In Virginia, a recent survey revealed that nearly six out of 10 eligible children were denied Medicaid coverage because of the new rules.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, where American Indians are among those snared by the rigid document requirements, plans to try to replace it with a more flexible state-by-state approach.

Ms. Ray, for example, could have been tracked through school records, her job history, a stint on welfare and a brush or two with the law. Instead, a diabetic with multiple health problems was put through a needless ordeal. No one else should be made to suffer.

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