On any given day during the legislative session, the corridors of the Maine State House are filled with professional lobbyists who often convey a confident familiarity with the lawmakers they are trying to sway to their side of an issue.
For Peruvian asylum seekers Milagros and her 23-year-old son Rodrigo this was unfamiliar territory. Competing with paid lobbyists for a few minutes of facetime with legislators on Thursday, the pair shared their story through a translator.
They and other immigrants organized by the All Means All campaign, a coalition of groups including Presente Maine and Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), were there trying to build support for LD 199, which would ensure that all low-income Mainers, regardless of immigration status, can get medical care.
“For us, it’s really important not just to represent ourselves, but to represent the voices of thousands of people who don’t have access to healthcare,” Milagros told Beacon, “including a lot of whom have special needs like my son.”
Rodrigo has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and because he doesn’t have health insurance or a primary care doctor, every time he has a seizure he has to go to the emergency room. One emergency room visit cost them $9,000.
Many immigrants like Rodrigo and Milagros, who aren’t allowed to work while they apply for permanent status, often rely on emergency room visits to get basic care. A 2019 analysis by UnitedHealth Group found that going to the ER for medical care that could be handled elsewhere is costing the U.S. healthcare system an excess of $32 billion a year.
It’s an expensive way to run a healthcare system — both for the hospitals and the immigrants who often rely on a patchwork of schemes to pay for their healthcare, including tapping into financial assistance offered by hospitals, community health centers, and other non-insurance programs.
Up until 2011, noncitizens who made below a certain amount were eligible to enroll in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. But former Gov. Paul LePage and Maine Republicans put an end to that.
Democrats, who have maintained a majority in Augusta since 2019, have done some work to reverse LePage’s discriminatory policy. In 2021, Gov. Janet Mills and the legislature restored MaineCare coverage to noncitizens under 21 years old and those who are pregnant. However, young people like Rodrigo are still not eligible.
LD 199, introduced by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), would close that loophole by restoring MaineCare coverage to all eligible low-income people, regardless of immigration status.
Optimism for upcoming floor votes
During a lunch break with other immigrants and advocates in a meeting room at the State House on Thursday, Milagros shared that she and Rodrigo had positive interactions with the handful of lawmakers they were able to speak with. She confided that she felt hopeful that LD 199 would finally pass the legislature.
The opinion was bolstered by Sen. Anne Carney, a Democrat representing Cumberland County and a co-sponsor of the bill, who stepped into the meeting room to welcome the immigrants to the capitol and share homemade cookies.
“I just want to let you all know personally that I’m fighting really hard for this bill and I’m really feeling optimistic,” she said.
Last year, a similar bill failed to make it out of committee, prompting proponents of that bill to speculate that Democrats were afraid to take a vote on the matter in an election year and open themselves to Republicans’ nativist attacks.
But the advocates with All Means All said Thursday that the mood feels different this time. That may be because Talbot Ross, the top House Democrat, is championing the bill.
The legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted to advance LD 199 on Wednesday. The vote was along party lines with all the committee’s Republican members opposed.
The bill will next go to a floor vote in the Maine House, and if successful there, onto the Senate, where the campaign has at least a few vocal champions.
“I just want to go on the record to indicate that I’m proudly supporting this bill,” said Sen. Joe Baldacci (D-Penobscot), the Senate chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, ahead of Wednesday’s vote. “Because I think Maine also understands that healthcare is a human right regardless of who you are.”