Dozens of advocates for immigrants in Maine offered their support Thursday for a bill that would restore health care benefits to thousands of non-citizen residents, many of them seeking asylum and fleeing violence in their native countries.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, looks to undo a decision made by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and a Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011. That move made most non-citizens in Maine ineligible for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor.

Reversing that decision could help at least 6,000 people who are seeking asylum in Maine. Talbot Ross estimates the expansion would cost the state between $5 million and $7 million a year. The bill also would allow other immigrants, including those who are undocumented and those seeking green cards, to access the state’s public health care system. Talbot Ross, the assistant House majority leader, said extreme racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates in Maine, the worst in the nation, make the legislation an urgent and moral priority.

“The bill title says we are seeking to close gaps in coverage, but it could more accurately say we seek to close gaping holes given the racial, ethnic disparities in health that Black and Brown Mainers have experienced since we first started capturing data about disparities – and that we most recently saw as the state with the worst disparities in our nation for COVID-19,” Talbot Ross told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

The legislation also would allow immigrant children to have access to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

There was no live opposition testimony to the bill Thursday, although one person wrote to the committee to complain that the bill’s title, “An Act To Improve the Health of Maine Residents by Closing Coverage Gaps in the MaineCare Program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program” seemed inaccurate.

Those testifying in favor of the bill included a number of immigrants, a former asylum seeker, advocates for the poor and representatives for the state’s largest health care organizations, including MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care network.

“Our immigrant communities are our barometer for racism in public health,” Mali Obomsawin, a member of the Wabanaki Community in western Maine, told the committee during the online public hearing.

Obomsawin and others said the pandemic brought clarity to the problem and highlighted the many vital roles many non-citizen immigrants play in Maine’s society and economy, serving as essential workers in farming, food production, construction, custodial services, retail sales and health care.

“During this pandemic many wealthy and privileged people have been forced to see their own well being is dependent on that of the underprivileged, a fact that may have been easier to ignore before COVID-19,” Obomsawin said. “COVID has been a reminder of how unjust and dysfunctional the public health system can be and how unprepared it was for a catastrophe of this magnitude.”

Crystal Cron, president of Presente Maine, an advocacy organization for the Latinx community, said people who aren’t eligible for benefits tend to delay needed health care until they have a medical emergency.

“Even when they have raked thousands of crates of blueberries, shucked hundreds of thousands of pounds of lobster, harvested broccoli, packed potatoes, washed our dishes, cooked our meals, built our houses and cleaned our toilets, many of my neighbors and friends who are immigrants cannot afford to go to a simple checkup at the doctor,” Cron said. “People are delaying care that they can’t afford to be putting off. Parents agonize over the right moment to take their kids to the doctor. They sacrifice their own health and care, so they can at least afford to take their children.”

Talbot Ross said Maine’s immigrant workforce contributes more than $62 million a year in state and local taxes, and many are well-educated, skilled laborers, small-business owners and entrepreneurs.

Others described the immigrant workers as the backbone that Maine depends on to build and grow its economy.

Westbrook City Councilor Claude Rwaganje, who also is the executive director of Prosperity Maine, said as a former asylum seeker he knows how long the wait can be to establish asylum in the courts and eventually work toward citizenship. Often it takes seven years or longer for an asylee to be granted permission to stay in the United States.

“Many people during those times are really suffering,” Rwaganje said.

The organization he started now employs 10 people, including native U.S. citizens, he said.

“We cannot say that we need them as essential workers but lack the way to support them with only this basic need,” Rwaganje said of those who would gain eligibility. “Contrary to what many people have said in the past, and I continue to hear, immigrants are not here to take away, but instead they are here to help us build the economy.”

Michael Mosley, a Waterville hotel manager, said the immigrants who work for him deserve the same access to health care he has. Mosley said he was taken in by an immigrant family and given a chance in life because of that. As a U.S. citizen, Mosley said he still struggled to get ahead but at times was able to lean on MaineCare, which kept him healthy and kept him working.

“It pains me and it angers me that the difference between me and one of my housekeepers or one of my other employees is that I get to go to the hospital, get medicine, be out of work for a day and then go back, but they would have to make that decision that I would have had to make if I didn’t have MaineCare,” Mosley said.

“Which is to just tough it out, maybe lose a week of work, maybe not make it through. And the idea that we have a system that allows this to happen to people on a regular basis just because they aren’t from this country is insane. I don’t think it’s conscionable. I don’t think it’s conscionable on any level.”

Talbot Ross’ bill, L.D. 718, will be the subject of a work session before the committee, likely next week, before it moves to the full Legislature for additional consideration.

Comments are not available on this story.