July 23, 2024

Oregon expands free health insurance for low-income Oregonians – regardless of immigration status

Photo from the Oregon Health Plan's "Healthier Oregon: Better Care for More People" report published in January 2023.
July 8, 2023

The move coincides with debates in other states this year on expanding Medicaid coverage to undocumented immigrants

By Lynne Terry, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon has expanded free health insurance that mirrors Medicaid to all residents who qualify, regardless of their immigration status. 

The move took effect July 1. It marks an expansion of a Medicaid-type program for immigrants last year for residents who don’t qualify for the Oregon Health Plan because of their immigration status. The program, Healthier Oregon, covered those 19-24 and 55 and older who met low-income and other qualifications and was funded by a $100 million allocation by the Legislature in 2021.

The expansion this month to all immigrants who qualify follows a two-year allocation of $460 million for the program in the recently ended legislative session. The Oregon Health Authority said that 40,000 immigrants who had received state-funded emergency health coverage were switched to the program on July 1. 

An authority spokeswoman, Amy Bacher, said the agency estimates that 55,000 people will be covered through the program.

“When it comes to health, we’re all connected,” Dave Baden, interim director of Oregon Health Authority, said in a statement. “Expanded health coverage through the full implementation of Healthier Oregon will keep more people and families healthy, which will reduce health costs and risks for every community.”

Baden said the expansion sets a new standard for other states. It comes amid a debate this spring in some states, including Connecticut, Minnesota and Nevada, about expanding Medicaid to undocumented immigrants, Politico reported. Similar efforts in New York and Maryland failed, however, with Democrats balking about the price tag.

Medicaid is funded largely through the federal government, which pays about two-thirds, with the rest provided by the state. Healthier Oregon receives some federal funding for emergency and pregnancy-related services but the state pays for most of the benefits.

“We don’t get any help from the federal government because the folks who are on it don’t have papers,” Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, told the Capital Chronicle. 

Nosse was among the Democrats in the Legislature who backed the expansion of Healthier Oregon. It’s part of the state’s goal to ensure all Oregonians have health care coverage. 

During the pandemic, nearly 1.5 million Oregonians, or one in three residents, were on Medicaid, which offers free dental, mental and physical health care. That expansion ended in April. The state is now going through a redetermination process and informing those who no longer qualify that they will lose coverage in 60 days.

State officials have informed about 25,000 people they will lose coverage, according to a statement released by the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Human Services on June 20. It estimated in that release that seven in 10 people will retain their benefits under the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid.

To qualify for the program, most residents can earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $20,000 a year for an individual or about $41,500 for a family of four. Oregon also has opened up benefits to those earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level to reduce the so-called churn population who fall off and on Medicaid, depending on their income. That means that individuals earning up to about $29,000 a year or a family of four earning up to $60,000 a year will receive the free coverage. The state estimated that would add about 25,000 more people to the Medicaid program.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.

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