Philly nonprofits push to get immigrants health insurance

     Patrick Keenan of Pennsylvania Health Access Network leads a forum for those who want to help more immigrants obtain health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Patrick Keenan of Pennsylvania Health Access Network leads a forum for those who want to help more immigrants obtain health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    At just 13 percent, Philadelphia has the lowest uninsured rate among major U.S. cities. But many nonprofits are looking to further chip away at that rate — and focusing their attention on immigrants.

    Too often, said Pedro Rodriguez of Enroll America, immigrants think health insurance is only available for citizens, or they are stymied by the language barrier.

    In reality, many non-citizens are eligible for Medicaid or marketplace coverage through the Affordable Care Act if they are in the country legally. And undocumented parents can sign up their eligible kids — no immigration questions asked.

    “Don’t assume that the answer is that you’re not qualified,” said Rodriguez.

    For Rodriguez and others, it’s crunch time. Open enrollment closes at the end of January, and for enrollees who want to use their insurance at the beginning of 2016, the deadline is in just two weeks.

    “We’re trying to get as many people finished before Dec. 15 as possible,” said Lauren Pongan of Penn Asian Senior Services, another group in the city that is providing special assistance to immigrants. It has 12 navigators who can assist residents in languages as varied as Mandarin and Burmese.

    “Having people fluent in the language and often from communities they are serving, establishing that trust is really important,” she said. “That helps dispel any anxiety or just help people feel comfortable enough to ask questions.”

    Even with the help, though, the task can be daunting. A basic application for a single family, Pongan said, can take two to three hours to complete.

    Another concern is cost. “It’s really important to kind of combat that idea that things are going to be expensive,” said Patrick Keenan of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network. Lower-income families, regardless of citizenship, are eligible to receive discounts on premiums through the marketplace.

    Government mistrust is particularly difficult to quell. Rodriguez, who has spent the last year and a half going from neighborhood to neighborhood talking to Philadelphia residents about insurance, said mixed-status families are often the most reluctant to sign up.

    “The family is protecting the person that doesn’t have status,” he said. “And they really guard them very zealously, understandably.”

    But no information about an undocumented family member is ever shared with authorities.

    “It takes a little bit of patience explaining that part,” said Rodriguez. “That’s one of the hardest [misconceptions] to break.”

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