By Dr. Khawar Nawaz MD
I'll always remember my first day working in the neonatal intensive care unit – the place in the hospital where newborn babies who are sick or born premature are cared for. It left a lasting impression on me about the importance of ensuring all families – including immigrant families – can access vital health services.
That day, I met a mother who was an immigrant. She had tears dripping down her face and was holding her infant's tiny hand. There, in an open crib, the baby was attached to several monitors with numbers flashing across the computer screen and had an oxygen tube attached to the baby’s little nose.
I went to over to the mother, offering her some tissues that she graciously accepted, and quickly started reviewing the baby's medical records. I learned that she had a hole in her heart and a syndrome that meant she had an extra chromosome and was relying on the oxygen tube.
I was grateful in that moment to know that the baby was in good hands, and that however frightening the experience, the mother was also in one of the best places she could be to get care for her child during such an uncertain time. Luckily, our state provides health care coverage through Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to children and pregnant women lawfully residing in the U.S. But that is not the case in other states across the country. Without New York's policy, would this family be able to afford the hospital stay?
In fact, due to a law passed about 26 years ago, in some states, immigrants with green cards and other lawful statuses are not only denied access to key health insurance programs but also other vital health services for their first five years in the United States.
Passed by Congress in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act has meant that children in these families have to wait to access benefits and services through programs like Medicaid, CHIP and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It is time that Congress change this.
For children who are rapidly growing and developing, five years is a lifetime. No child should have to wait to benefit from these programs that are so important for their health and development – like ensuring they have health care coverage or that their families can put food on the table. The COVID-19 pandemic has further brought to light why it is so critical that families have access to health care coverage and other services to support their overall health.
That is why Congress must pass the LIFT the BAR Act, which would remove this unnecessary five-year waiting period and provide access to these vital health programs without delay. We must remove barriers that deny care and aid to these immigrant families.
It's my hope that my patients will not need to worry about things like whether they can afford a hospital bill or where their next meal will come from. Passing the LIFT the BAR Act is just one way that our lawmakers can support the health of children, families and our country.
About Author: Dr. Khawar Nawaz MD is a Pediatric Resident and Public Health student at SUNY Downstate medical center/Kings County Hospital Brooklyn with interest in Pediatric Advocacy and Health Policy affecting Pediatrics.