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Wednesday, May 10, 2000

Immigrant health-care
program restarts

By Helen Altonn


A state program that started in the fall of 1998 to provide free or low-cost health care to legal resident immigrants, then stopped last June, is being offered again.

Up to 5,000 people may be eligible to receive health care through the Hawaii Immigrant Health Initiative, according to the nonprofit Hawaii State Primary Care Association, which is coordinating the program.

The association, state Department of Health, Catholic Charities and Community Health Centers are trying to get the word out to immigrants that health benefits are available.

Federal law has prohibited immigrants from receiving public health care benefits since August, 1996.

The state initiative allowed medical care for legal immigrants who arrived here after Aug. 22, 1996, and would otherwise be eligible for Medicaid or QUEST.

But services were halted after the state Department of Human Services had problems getting a request out for a proposal to administer it, said Beth Giesting, executive director of the Primary Care Association. "There was a gap of six months when things were hanging in the balance," she said. "Services weren't available again until recently when we were provided funding to administer the program."

Until now, Giesting said, people weren't encouraged to use the services because providers didn't know if they would be reimbursed.

However, $590,000 a year has been provided for the program and DHS "considers it ongoing funding," she said. "It's not terribly generous, but it does seem to meet a heck of a lot of needs when we're trying to make sure people have access to primary care."

Giesting said the program not only benefits eligible immigrants, it's "an even better investment for the state."

After the program faltered last June, the nine community health centers and other providers continued to do what they could for legal immigrants, Giesting said. But they couldn't refer patients for specialty or diagnostic services. For information, call Giesting at 536-8442.

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