MEDI-CAL: State To Reimburse Immigrants For Past Practices
Medi-Cal officials say they are prepared to repay "millions of dollars they recovered" from legal immigrants who were threatened with rejection of their relatives' visa applications if they did not pay for services they had used. According to the San Jose Mercury News, two anti-fraud programs designed to save the system money went awry, leading to a "virtual quid pro quo -- repayment for visas." First, in 1994, the U.S. Department of State and the Immigration and Naturalization Service began a program in conjunction with the states to collect public assistance data on immigrants to determine if their relatives seeking visas would be potential "public charge[s]." Soon, U.S. embassies, INS offices and border checkpoints began suggesting that "the chances for visas would be improved if pubic assistance 'debts' were paid." Second, a Medi-Cal anti-fraud program, designed to prevent illegal immigrants for signing up for public assistance, began targeting "people who had received Medi-Cal legally" two years ago. Ultimately, "the anti-fraud and public-charge programs began to blur in the minds of INS officers, state investigators and immigrants," the San Jose Mercury News reports, to the point where "benefits legally received were 'categorized as a debt, something that was owed.'"
Some immigrants became so fearful that they refused all forms of assistance, including prenatal and pediatric care, as they believed it would hurt their relatives' chances to immigrate. Federal officials began hearing about abuses late last year, and "told states they had no right to collect Medi-Cal reimbursements if they weren't the result of fraud or overpayment." State Medi-Cal administrators announced they will no longer accept reimbursements if benefits were legally received. Furthermore, both the state Assembly and Senate have cut funds for the two dubious programs from next year's budget. Separately, Deputy Medi-Cal Director Walter Barnes said the state is about to settle "a class-action suit filed last year" which would stop the practice and pay back more than $3 million to former Medi-Cal recipients (McLaughlin, 5/25).