Philly immigrant group joins in discrimination complaint against HHS over language hurdle

    SEAMAAC outreach worker Zing Thluai has been helping people who receive notices submit requested immigration documents. She says some are confused

    SEAMAAC outreach worker Zing Thluai has been helping people who receive notices submit requested immigration documents. She says some are confused

    A Philadelphia group that’s been helping immigrants sign up for coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s new online marketplace has filed a complaint in hopes of blocking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from canceling coverage due to “data-matching” issues.



    The Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, Inc. alleges that HHS failed to properly notify those whose primary language isn’t English that they could lose their health coverage Sept. 30 if they didn’t provide additional proof that they’re in the U.S. legally.

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    In August, HHS announced that more than 300,000 people needed to submit additional documents. At that time, department officials said they’d made multiple attempts to reach out to individuals through phone, email and mail.

    The announcement worried SEAMAAC director Thoai Nguyen who learned that about 12,000 immigrants in Pennsylvania would lose coverage if they didn’t submit the additional material proving their immigration status. His group had been assisting many immigrant families in Philadelphia sign up for coverage.

    “We were pretty alarmed,” said Nguyen. “We want[ed] our consumers who are limited English-proficient to know the urgency of those notices.”

    The problem, said Nguyen, was that those English and Spanish notices may have resulted in many eligible immigrants unknowingly losing their coverage because they didn’t understand what was at stake. A tag line in the letter, written in 15 other languages, gave a phone number for an interpreter.

    SEAMAAC joined the National Immigration Law Center [NILC] and a Chicago group, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, in filing a complaint Tuesday through the HHS Office of Civil Rights. They contend that such terminations violate anti-discrimination regulations under the Affordable Care Act.

    The federal government “is penalizing immigrants for failing to fix a problem they were told about in a language they didn’t understand,” said Alvaro Huerta, an attorney with NILC. He points to section 1557 of the ACA, a provision that “includes requirements that the government can’t discriminate either intentionally or by having a disproportionate impact on any certain group, and that group can be national origin,” said Huerta. “So it includes things like language access issues.”

    HHS did not specifically respond to the complaint but has said it has tried numerous times to reach out to people. The reasons why an individual would have to submit documents vary.

    About 100,000 people failed to respond.

    An HHS representative stated by email that those who’ve made attempts to resolve the issue will be eligible to enroll again through a special enrollment period:

    “A consumer whose federally facilitated marketplace coverage is ending because of a data matching issue, but who submitted documentation late that resolved their data matching issue, can receive a special enrollment period (SEP) to re-enroll in marketplace coverage. The SEP would extend sixty days after the termination effective date. Consumers should visit, or call the call center for more information on how to sign up for coverage with a special enrollment period.”

    Huerta worries that people won’t realize their coverage had been cancelled until they try to use it. His law center also wants to know whether those receiving cancellation notices had already indicated to HHS that they preferred to get information in a language other than English or Spanish.

    The next step will be for HHS to review the complaint and decide whether to open an investigation, said Huerta. He’d like to see HHS block the cancellations.

    But why not file a lawsuit?

    “This may sound a little funny,” said Nguyen “But we still have faith in the system …  [the ACA] is a great program, and we did not want to come across as an organization that was critical of an administration that made it all happen.”

    In filing the complaint, Nguyen and others said they also want it to lead to better language resources within the ACA for people whose primary language isn’t English or Spanish.

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