Health care bill draws debate over immigrants

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MONTPELIER -- Liberal supporters of universal health care legislation are finding themselves under attack from their left flank over a last-minute amendment to the bill that would bar illegal immigrants from coverage under the Green Mountain Care program the bill envisions setting up.

Operating under the rhetorical battle cry "Vermont is not Arizona!" the Vermont Workers' Center and other groups have been lobbying furiously in recent days to get stripped from the bill an amendment added just before the state Senate passed it this week that limits coverage to legal Vermont residents. The bill is currently in a conference committee in which differences between House and Senate versions are being worked out.

"We as Vermont are one community, and are proud to distinguish ourselves from states like Arizona that pass legislation excluding people based on their immigration status," one activist wrote in an e-mail to Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, an amendment sponsor who provided a copy after a request under Vermont's public-records law.

Arizona last year passed a law requiring police to question people's immigration status while enforcing other laws if there is a reasonable suspicion they're in the country illegally. A court blocked the law from taking immediate effect after the U.S. Justice Department filed suit saying the federal government has sole jurisdiction over immigration law.

Robert Appel, executive director of the state Human Rights Commission, sent an email to activists that said in part: "We can do better! Let us not start down the road of requiring proof of citizenship (like "birthers") to access fundamental services that benefit us all." The parenthetical phrase was Appel's.

The lobbying effort has angered senators who say they supported the amendment merely to clarify something they thought was in the bill already. They add that the special federal permissions -- or waivers -- Vermont needs to implement the health care law won't be forthcoming if the state does not follow the federal lead in excluding illegal immigrants.

"We wouldn't provide membership in Green Mountain Care to someone from Iowa who was here temporarily, so why would we do so for someone here illegally, who by definition is here temporarily?" asked Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, one of the amendment's sponsors.

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Another concern is how guaranteeing health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants might affect the program's budget.

"We passed a bill to provide Vermonters with universal health care, not to have Vermonters provide the universe with health care," Brock said.

The issue has struck a chord with a broad swath of human rights supporters and has raised what has been a key immigration issue in the state in recent years: the estimated 1,500 to 2,500 immigrant farmworkers who provide crucial labor to the state's dairy farms but who often remain in hiding for fear of deportation.

Dana Woodruff, who described herself as an herbalist, confronted Sears about it in a Statehouse hallway and later sent an email to The Associated Press.

"The Brock-Sears amendment brings attention to a very vulnerable population in Vermont that often go unseen and unheard," Woodruff wrote. "The labor of migrant farmworkers who aren't documented keeps Vermont dairy farms alive, yet they often fear having leaving their farms to shop or attend church because of the possibility of being reported to officials and deported."

The bill calls for the state first to set up an "exchange," or regulated health care marketplace, that would provide consumers with more information about the various health insurance plans currently available. Such exchanges are required under the federal health care bill passed last year. It then calls for the exchange to become the framework for the universal health program Green Mountain Care by 2017.

As proposed by the Shumlin administration and passed by both House and Senate, the sections of the bill dealing with the exchange say a person qualified to be in the exchange "is reasonably expected to be during the time of enrollment, a citizen or national of the United States or a lawfully present immigrant in the United States as defined by federal law."

Sears, Brock and Sen. Peter Galbraith, another amendment supporter, said the aim was to make sure a similar provision applied not just to the exchange but to Green Mountain Care.


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