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Senate leaders ‘wholeheartedly’ back health care for undocumented children

Governor McKee put $1.9 million in the state budget to extend Medicaid coverage to ‘cover all kids’ -- and the state senator who introduced a bill to do so last year is gearing up to try again

Rhode Island State Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket DemocratJames Kegley

PROVIDENCE — State Senate leaders on Friday came out strongly in favor of providing public health insurance coverage for undocumented children.

Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat, introduced a bill last year aimed at ensuring that all children, regardless of immigration status, qualify for health insurance under the state’s “RIte Track” Medicaid program, which provides health care for those up to age 19. The bill died in committee.

But in his State of the State address on Wednesday, Governor Daniel J. McKee noted that Rhode Island has been a national leader in health insurance coverage, saying, “I am proud to propose that we cover all kids in Medicaid – we’ve done it before, let’s do it again.”

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In Thursday’s budget proposal, the Cumberland Democrat proposed spending $1.9 million to extend Medicaid coverage “to children who would otherwise be eligible except for their immigration status.” Of that total, $660,000 will be used for technology infrastructure necessary to implement the program, Department of Administration spokesman Derek Gomes said.

And on Friday, the Rhode Island Senate Leadership PAC sent out an email, titled “It’s time to Cover All Kids,” saying Cano plans to reintroduce the legislation again.

“She’s already laid out the case for why this legislation is an investment in Rhode Island’s future, and we’re backing her wholeheartedly in getting this important bill over the finish line in the coming months,” read the letter, signed by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin.

The pandemic underscored the need for families to have reliable and affordable health care, Senate leaders said.

“RIte Care has helped make that possible by offering health insurance coverage to economically disadvantaged children and pregnant women for more than two decades,” they said. “But right now, one vulnerable group still isn’t covered by RIte Care: our undocumented children.”

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Cano, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said this marks an important step for advocates who have pushed for health care coverage for undocumented children. “The epidemic has highlighted the need for all Rhode Island families to have reliable, affordable, and accessible health care,” she said. “Honestly, my heart is full because this is the right thing to do for all Rhode Islanders.”

Advocates have been urging Rhode Island to again provide health coverage to all children, regardless of immigration status.

The Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty made it a priority during the 14th annual “Fighting Poverty with Faith” vigil at the State House. And Dr. Beata Nelken, a pediatrician in Central Falls, wrote a Globe Rhode Island opinion piece, saying, “It’s time to restore health coverage for Rhode Island children regardless of immigration status so they can be healthy and successful in school and life.”

Representative David Morales, a Providence Democratic, has proposed a companion House bill, noting the state provided health coverage to all children from 1996 to 2008 but curtailed that coverage during the recession. The state now contains about 3,000 uninsured children, including 400 who cannot get coverage because of their immigration status, and state officials estimate it would cost $1.1 million to provide coverage for those 400 children, he said.

“I’m excited the governor included Cover All Kids in the budget because this is going to be a life-changing investment that will ensure all children in our state can receive the adequate medical and dental care that they need,” Morales said Friday. “And I’m pleased legislative leaders are also rallying support behind this bill.”

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The repeal of health coverage for undocumented children did not receive much legislative attention in 2008, he said. But now, the pandemic has underscored the importance of the issue, he said, and it helps to have legislators, such as he and Cano, who come from immigrant backgrounds and understand the impact on working-class people of color.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, issued a statement Friday, saying, “Health care coverage for all Rhode Islanders is a very important issue. It was included in the governor’s budget proposal, and we are anticipating that Representative David Morales will be re-introducing a bill during this session. Our House Finance Committee will do a robust analysis and we welcome the public to offer their viewpoints at a future hearing.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.