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Immigrants begin to join health care plan

The agency overseeing the state’s landmark health care law has begun enrolling thousands of legal immigrants into the subsidized insurance program after the state’s highest court ruled that lawmakers unconstitutionally denied the benefit to foreign-born residents who have been in the country for less than five years.

State lawmakers voted in 2009 to cut funding for low-income immigrants enrolled in Commonwealth Care because the federal government does not reimburse states for dental, hospice, skilled-nursing care, and other costs incurred by foreign-born residents living in the country for less than five years.

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The immigrants were transferred to another state program that offered limited coverage, while thousands of others were put on a waiting list. The action, intended to help plug a $1.9 billion budget deficit, marked the first significant rollback to the health care law that was signed in 2006 by Mitt Romney, then the governor.

The Supreme Judicial Court, however, ruled unanimously in January that preventing immigrants from enrolling in Commonwealth Care was unconstitutional because it violated their rights to equal protection under the Massachusetts Constitution. Judges said state officials could not justify their exclusion based on fiscal concerns alone.

About 26,000 immigrants who were on the waiting list have begun receiving letters saying they are eligible for Commonwealth Care and MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, and instructing them how to join, said Dick Powers of the Massachusetts Health Connector Authority, an independent state agency that oversees the health care law.

Those letters began going out in three waves beginning March 26, with the third and final batch expected to be mailed Monday.

Health Care for All will help immigrants determine if they are eligible for the program.

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