In 2011, a group of immigrants living in New Jersey filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, claiming that the Legislature allowed the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) to directly violate their constitutional rights at both the state and federal levels. Citing policy change for cost-cutting purposes during the budget crisis, DHS had previously made changes to the Medicaid requirements for low-income families, and in doing so, the Department excluded nearly 8,000 immigrants from receiving coverage. Now, the New Jersey Supreme Court is set to rule on whether this exclusion violates the law.
Immigration lawyers in New Jersey report that the decision has the potential to affect thousands of the state’s immigrant families, as many of them rely on Medicaid coverage to supplement health insurance, especially in lower-income families. In a decision last year, the state appeals court determined that no laws had been broken and allowed the changes to stand as a legitimate means of saving money within the state’s Medicaid program, NJ FamilyCare. Based on this, many immigrant families have been denied Medicaid coverage for the past three years, making it much more difficult for them to receive health and medical benefits.
The NJ FamilyCare program caters to families who need help paying for medical services, including basic insurance as provided by Medicaid. According to the program’s eligibility rules, legal permanent adult residents must hold their status for at least five years before they can qualify for NJ FamilyCare and receive the program’s support and benefits.
After the appeals court ruled the changes constitutional, the changes made by DHS were put in place and some 8,000 immigrants were left without access to Medicaid—which, for many, was the only option left for obtaining reasonable, affordable health insurance services. Additionally, non-pregnant parents of children enrolled in the NJ FamilyCare program were excluded, even if they met the requirements for permanent residency status.
The Reason Behind the Appellate Court's Ruling
The appellate judges who ruled the policy change constitutional used the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 to justify the state’s actions. The Act is a federal law that was originally designed to make it harder for low-income, undocumented immigrants to obtain health insurance coverage, thus disincentivizing illegal immigration. The Act put the power to determine whether to provide health insurance or not in the hands of each state, and the New Jersey legislature voted not to provide such insurance to such immigrants as part of their cost-cutting efforts.
While supporters of the changes say that this decision is well within the state’s rights under the Reconciliation Act, critics say that equal treatment should be granted to all those immigrants who do qualify for Medicaid and FamilyCare relief under the program’s requirements. The state Supreme Court’s ruling will be precedential in determining whether the state acted constitutionally or in violation of immigrant’s rights.
At the New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our immigration attorneys represent clients who have been unjustly denied benefits due to their status as immigrants or permanent residents. To discuss your case, contact an HCK attorney today.