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Originally published October 26, 2011 at 9:14 PM | Page modified October 26, 2011 at 9:24 PM

11,000 may rejoin state's Basic Health plan

A federal judge has told Washington state to re-enroll in the Basic Health plan some 11,000 people who were eliminated because of questions about their immigration status.

Seattle Times health reporter

More information

Northwest Health Law Advocates: email: basichealthcase@nohla.org or call 206 389-1665.

Health Care Authority's Basic Health program: www.basichealth.hca.wa.gov or 1-800-660-9840; interpreting services will be arranged free of charge.

quotes Do we expect all immigrants to be in the country, legally, for 5 years before they can... Read more
quotes Illegal aliens should never get any government benefits other than a one-way ticket home. Read more
quotes Just in time to see the whole program eliminated due to budget cuts. Read more

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About 11,000 people who were kicked off the state's Basic Health insurance program for the working poor in March because of their immigration status will be allowed to re-enroll after a federal court judge said the state likely had violated their constitutional equal-protection rights.

Nearly 1,600 are immigrants who are in the country legally but have been "lawfully present" for less than five years; the others didn't supply information to the state about their resident status in time to avoid being removed from the program.

Earlier this year, the state, under budget pressure that nearly shut down the subsidized program, adopted new rules to qualify for federal funds. The new rules required that participants be legal U.S. residents who have been in the country for at least five years.

On March 1, the Health Care Authority, under budget pressure, removed about 17,000 people from the program, including children, seniors, those who made too much money, undocumented residents, and those who hadn't lived here legally for at least five years.

Soon afterward, a low-income Snohomish County woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer filed the lawsuit, saying she had to cancel a follow-up doctor's appointment because she couldn't afford it.

Several other plaintiffs, all represented by Northwest Health Law Advocates and Seattle law firm Riddell Williams, joined the lawsuit.

The state argued that an order to bring people back onto the program might cause it to overspend, possibly forcing the state to close the program entirely.

Judge James Robart, of the U.S. District Court in Seattle, who certified the lawsuit as a class-action case, issued a preliminary injunction Sept. 28, saying that "class members' need for subsidized health insurance and the proven risk of erroneous deprivation likely outweigh the government's interest in conserving limited resources."

Robart also said those who had been removed from the program hadn't gotten adequate notification from the state, including an individualized explanation of why the state had concluded they were no longer eligible, a description of eligibility requirements so the recipient could submit relevant proof of eligibility and information on the right to appeal.

Those who wish to re-enroll must pay premiums by Nov. 21 for December coverage; they can also pay premiums for retroactive coverage back through September, said Sharon Michael, HCA spokeswoman.

Michael said it isn't clear yet how the state will pay for the health-care costs of those who re-enroll but who don't meet federal requirements. "As far as I know, it's money that has to come out of our budget. ... We don't know the impact yet."

She said letters will go out by the end of the week to those 11,000 former Basic Health members.

The plan's enrollment is currently 35,066, down from nearly 81,000 a year ago. There are now 152,893 people on the waiting list.

Janet Varon, attorney with Northwest Health Law Advocates, said there was no real disagreement between the two parties on the facts. "This was a ruling on the law," she said.

When the expansion of the federal health-care overhaul takes place in 2014, most of those removed from the Basic Health program will be eligible for federal funds and will be able to buy health insurance through a state-managed marketplace.

But in the meantime, the state budget crisis has put the Basic Health program at risk, potentially affecting thousands who need health insurance, Varon said. "A lot of this is just getting to 2014."

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

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