Legislature Likely to Propose Health Coverage But Not Cash Relief for Undocumented New Yorkers, Sources Say
Undocumented New Yorkers and their supporters rallied for state-funded cash relief on March 8, 2022 | Make the Road New York

Legislature Likely to Propose Health Coverage But Not Cash Relief for Undocumented New Yorkers, Sources Say

Both chambers are set to release budget proposals that will represent a mixed bag for New York's undocumented population.

This article was published in partnership with Documented.

Sources in the New York State legislature say that the Senate and Assembly’s proposals for the final state budget are likely to include an expansion of health insurance for New York’s undocumented population. But, as negotiations currently stand, the proposals will not include the renewal of the Excluded Workers Fund, a program that provides cash relief for undocumented New Yorkers shut out of federal stimulus payments.

The news comes as New York’s Senate and Assembly are finalizing their “one-house budgets,” documents that outline their priorities for the final state budget. Negotiations are highly fluid, and it remains possible that legislative leaders will reverse course on either issue.

The budget proposals are a mixed bag for undocumented New Yorkers. 

Expanding insurance “has been a fight for some time,” said Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas (D-Queens). “There’s absolutely a win in that and we have to celebrate it.” 

“But it is a disappointment if we don’t see the Excluded Workers Fund in the final budget,” she said, referring to the cash relief program, which immigrant advocates have sought to refill since it ran out of money in October.

With limited exceptions for emergency care, undocumented immigrants in New York are ineligible for Medicare, Medicaid, and the state’s Essential Plan. That plan, which covers about 900,000 New Yorkers, provides coverage to New Yorkers with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty line, which in 2022 is $55,500 for a family of four. The Essential Plan generally has no premium or deductible, and covers preventative care, dental and vision benefits, and prescription drugs.

Since 2017, a campaign led by the New York Immigrant Coalition and Make the Road New York has sought to include undocumented immigrants in the Essential Plan. The effort has been stalled for years. A bill to expand eligibility has been pending in the legislature since 2019, but has never gotten a floor vote in either house.

But on Thursday, Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said that the prospects of Essential Plan expansion being included in the state Senate’s budget proposals were “looking good,” and multiple sources said that it was likely to be in both chambers’ budget proposals. 

Supporters estimate the expansion’s cost at over $500 million a year and project that it would provide coverage to 46,000 undocumented New Yorkers. A report from the Community Service Society and the Citizens Budget Commission noted that the federal government would bear some of the cost, and estimated that it would cost the state $345 million a year.

The expansion would follow the lead of other blue states. Last year, California expanded its Medicaid program to cover undocumented people above the age of 50. The year before, Illinois created a program offering coverage to undocumented seniors below the poverty line. New York’s initiative would compete with California’s to be the largest program of state-funded health coverage for undocumented people in the country.

It remains unclear how receptive Governor Hochul would be to the expansion. She did not include it in her January executive budget proposal. To become law, the expansion will need to survive negotiations between legislative leadership and the governor — a process in which the governor has the upper hand, and which often sees some legislative priorities left on the cutting room floor.

“We need to push the Governor to fund it on her side during the three-way negotiations,” said Brian Romero, Gonzalez-Rojas’ chief of staff.

Avi Small, a spokesperson for Hochul, said that “We look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to finalize a budget that serves all New Yorkers,” but did not say whether Hochul supports or opposes expanding the Essential Plan.

Competing Priorities

Another top priority of immigrant advocates is likely to be left out of both chambers’ proposals: refilling the Excluded Workers Fund.

In 2021, New York’s budget allocated $2.1 billion to establish a first in the nation fund to provide cash relief to undocumented immigrants, who had been left out of previous rounds of federal stimulus. Its inclusion in the budget was spurred by an intense activist campaign, including a three-week hunger strike

But intense demand and a higher-than-expected approval rate for the full $15,600 of relief meant that the fund ran out of cash in October, with most of the 350,000 submitted claims still unfilled. 

Even before the fund ran dry, legislators and activists were calling on the state to replenish it so that those who applied too late to get relief could have another shot. The coalition of advocacy groups pushing for the funding hopes to win another $3 billion in this year’s budget. 

“Those that have applied, if they were not able to get money last year because the money ran out, there should be enough put into the budget this year to guarantee that those families have some access to relief,” said Jose Lopez, co-executive director of Make the Road.

Hochul did not allocate any state cash to the Excluded Workers Fund in her budget proposal, and as of Friday, the legislature’s proposals were not likely to include any either, according to Gonzalez-Rojas, Lopez, and other sources.

It’s not yet on the list,” Lopez said on Thursday. “We’re going to continue to push over the next day to try and get it in.”

“The line is that, ‘We’re already doing something for that constituency with Coverage for All,’” said a legislative staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, referring to the expansion of the Essential Plan. 

Advocates had hoped that some of a $2 billion pot for coronavirus relief programs included in Hochul’s budget proposal would be used to replenish the fund. Hochul’s proposal left the legislature to determine which specific programs to spend that money on.

While the legislature could have proposed spending more on coronavirus relief than $2 billion, it largely chose not to do so, according to Gonzalez-Rojas and another Assemblymember. Both chambers’ budget proposals, as they currently stand, allocate the $2 billion to relief for renters and landlords, housing vouchers for homeless people, and other housing programs, leaving none left over for the Excluded Workers fund, multiple sources said.

“It’s competing priorities. I think ERAP is really important and we also need to fund that. I just don’t think that should be at the cost of undocumented workers. I think we need to invest in both,” said Gonzalez-Rojas, using the acronym for New York’s rental relief program.

Spokespersons for the Senate and Assembly did not respond to requests for comment.

This year, New York is unusually flush with funds due to projections of tens of billions of dollars in higher than expected tax receipts, and over $23 billion in federal aid that New York has received or will receive in the next four years. Hochul proposed New York’s largest budget ever, clocking in at $216 billion, and including progressive goals such as expanding Medicaid eligibility and banning natural gas in new buildings by 2027. 

But she also allotted $16 billion over the next five years for rainy-day reserve funds, and earmarked over $3 billion to cover the cost of lowering property and income taxes. That meant that some spending programs, including the Excluded Workers Fund, didn’t make the cut.

Advocates for undocumented New Yorkers haven’t given up hope. Last year, the fund wasn’t in then-Governor Cuomo’s budget proposal or the legislature’s budget proposals either, Gonzalez-Rojas noted, and yet was still allocated $2.1 billion in the final budget package. 

Make the Road and other proponents of the fund are planning an escalating campaign in the remaining weeks before the April 1 deadline for a final budget, including a 150-mile march from New York City to Albany led by undocumented activists. “The coalition is going to fight like hell for the next two weeks to revive [the fund],” Lopez said.

Gonzalez-Rojas is also planning to continue to push for the Fund from within the legislature.

“I’m looking to keep pressing to see if there could be any changes and shifts,” she said. “It’s still worth it to fight to the bitter end.”