Wednesday, November 28, 2007
On a fruitless hunt for illegal aliens
- TOP expects to survive state budget chop
- Early learning stars
- Independent voice is silenced in merger
- TOP takes a hard knock
From the RoundTable blog
I begin where I left off last month in commenting on the deceptive political gamesmanship in Washington that has stalled expansion of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program to cover more uninsured kids.
I noted "the mindlessly repeated allegation that expanding SCHIP would allow more illegal immigrants to participate," and asserted: "Illegal immigrants never have been eligible, and the changes Congress has passed, and the president has vetoed, would not let them in."
That prompted a reader to complain I didn't tell the full story. The vetoed measure included language that would have removed any requirement for providing identification when applying for SCHIP or Medicaid, he maintained, thus opening both programs, surely, to fraud and abuse by a lot of people, including illegal aliens.
Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for SCHIP, but that doesn't necessarily mean they wouldn't get it if they could pass through the screening process with their status undetected. So I called Jill Hanken, the staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, to check if I had committed a journalistic error of omission.
Bottom line: no. Reauthorization legislation actually would add a layer of protection against fraud that doesn't exist.
"SCHIP never had any requirement that states obtain any type of documentation [of U.S. citizenship] to get SCHIP coverage," Hanken explained. A person's declaration is all that has been needed.
The new bill -- both the vetoed version and a second that is dangling in Congress under threat of another veto by President Bush -- would extend to SCHIP a Medicaid requirement to provide proof of citizenship or eligible legal immigrant status. However, the change also would ease Medicaid's onerous documentation requirements, and therein lies ample room for misplaced alarm.
The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offers a succinct background report on the undocumented immigrant issue. Unsubstantiated fears that illegal aliens were sopping up Medicaid benefits led Congress to change the law affecting that program in 2006.
No more do applicants have to provide proof of citizenship only when there is reason for doubt. Congress enacted a provision requiring "every citizen child and parent receiving or applying for Medicaid to provide an original birth certificate, passport, or similar document to prove his or her citizenship." This despite a 2005 study by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general that found no evidence of the problem that the change was meant to remedy.
The fix did create a real problem, though. It made it harder for U.S. citizens to enroll because many didn't have a document that met the proof of citizenship standard and couldn't easily get one. The center reports:
"The six states that have examined this issue in greatest detail found they have spent $17 million so far to administer the burdensome requirement, have denied health insureance to tens of thousands of needy children and parents as a result, and have identified a grand total of eight undocumented individuals, whom they may have caught under the previous procedures anyway. For example, the number of low-income children insured through Medicaid has dropped 11,000 in Virginia and 14,000 in Kansas due to the new requirements; each state identified one applicant who incorrectly claimed to be a citizen."
Both versions of the SCHIP reauthorization bill include a requirement for all applicants to provide documentation of citizenship or eligible legal immigrant status, just as Medicaid now requires. But for both programs, states could choose to ease the way for citizens.
States could continue to adhere to the current Medicaid rule and extend it to SCHIP, or require applicants who have signed a sworn declaration of citizenship to provide their Social Security numbers and their children's Social Security numbers. States taking this route would verify each name and number with the Social Security Administration to make sure they matched.
The revised bill would require states to take an added step, to verify that the SSA database shows that the applicant is a citizen.
It's fair to ask at this point just where the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is coming from, whether it has an agenda. It does.
Its Web site states: "The Center conducts research and analysis to inform public debates over proposed budget and tax policies and to help ensure that the needs of low-income families and individuals are considered in these debates."
Public officials across the political spectrum make the same claim, with varying degrees of seriousness. SCHIP is a crucial issue for the working poor. Let the debate on expanding it be informed by facts, not driven by perceptions.
Strother is on the editorial board of The Roanoke Times.