Jon Walker made a list this week of 35 ways to improve the Senate health care bill. This was #30:

Make all legal immigrants eligible for all public health care programs right away, instead of creating a five year wait.

Under current law, legal immigrants are subject to a 5-year waiting period before accessing programs like Medicaid. The Senate bill did not alter this feature of our health care system. But Robert Menendez has exacted a concession from Harry Reid on the issue:

During the Senate negotiations, Robert Menendez—the only Hispanic lawmaker in the Senate—pushed for an amendment that would eliminate the five-year waiting period that is imposed on legal, newly naturalized immigrants before they are allowed to be eligible for Medicaid benefits. The Medicaid waiting period was created in 1996 during the conservative anti-immigration crackdown, and immigration advocates have long fought to remove the provision, arguing that tax-paying legal immigrants shouldn’t be denied basic government services. According to Menendez, eliminating the waiting period would potentially make about 600,000 adults newly eligible for Medicaid. While the provision was not included in Reid’s manager’s amendment to the Senate bill, Menendez “got a commitment from the Majority Leader to include it in conference,” Menendez spokesperson Afshin Mohamadi told TNR today.

FDL News has confirmed this with Menendez’ spokesman.

Rachel Larris estimates that this would allow up to 600,000 legal immigrants to become eligible for Medicaid right away, and “Evaluation of the amendment by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that there is no cost associated with the amendment.” I guess the savings of uncompensated care offsets the cost of Medicaid.

There is still a fight that will be had between the House and the Senate on the subject of naturalized – and undocumented – immigrants purchasing health care on the exchange. Right now undocumented immigrants are barred from the exchanges entirely, even if they want to purchase insurance with their own money. And the law is unclear on whether lifting the waiting period on naturalized immigrants for Medicaid applies to the exchanges as well. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have threatened to vote against the bill for this reason. My assumption is that the CHC will get a “promise” to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform in 2010, which would get around the issue of barring 11-12 million people currently in this country from the exchanges, at least over time. The legal immigrant/exchange issue still has to be addressed.

There are still 34 more items on Jon Walker’s list, but at least we’re making progress on one of them, which happened to be one of the least defensible of the bunch.