New York Court Rules Immigrants Have Right to Medicaid
The New York State Court of Appeals ruled unanimously yesterday that the state had violated both its own and the U.S. Constitutions by denying Medicaid benefits to otherwise qualified legal immigrants, the New York Times reports. Congress, as part of the welfare reform act signed in August 1996, prohibited immigrants who arrived in the United States after that month from receiving a "range of federally financed government benefits," including Medicaid, for five years after they arrive in the country. The change left states to decide whether to cover the costs of these services on their own. "At the insistence of Gov. George Pataki (R)," New York state lawmakers enacted legislation to "conform" with the federal law and deny immigrants Medicaid coverage (Sengupta, New York Times, 6/6). Two years ago, a trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a suit filed on behalf of eight immigrants denied Medicaid after the law was passed (American Health Line, 5/19/99). That decision was reversed by an appellate court. But the Court of Appeals -- New York's highest court -- ruled that this denial violated a provision in the state constitution mandating that the state "aid the poor." The court also found that "singling out" residents based on their immigration status violated the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause, "in effect" ruling that "Congress had no power to authorize the states to violate the federal Constitution," the Times reports. But since a state court "cannot compel" Congress to restore Medicaid benefits for immigrants, yesterday's ruling "means that the Pataki administration will have to pay to extend coverage for all legal immigrants," the Times reports.
Since the welfare law's passage, many states with large immigrant populations, including California and New Jersey, have decided to cover the full cost of Medicaid benefits for legal immigrants, with the governors of these states "express[ing] frustration" at the lack of federal funding. Reacting to yesterday's decision, Pataki "pledged" to comply with the ruling and called on Congress to repeal the 1996 policy. "We'll certainly provide the services, and at the same time urge the federal government to correct what I believe was the mistaken decision in '96 to cut off these benefits. ... And we're going to continue to make the case for them to pick up their fair share," he said. David Super, general counsel at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that yesterday's decision may improve the chances of congressional action. "The reasoning of this court decision may cause other states to come in line. If enough states are having to bear the full burden of paying for these immigrants, that could bring political pressure on Congress to provide the usual federal matching funds," he said. The Times notes that yesterday's ruling does not apply to illegal immigrants and is thus unrelated to a May decision by a Manhattan federal court of appeals that pregnant illegal immigrants do not have the right to Medicaid-provided prenatal care (New York Times, 6/6). The full text of the New York State Court of Appeal's decision is available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/ny/ctap/I01_0059.htm.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.